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Importance of Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is important. However, understanding the role of complimentary feeding is essential once your baby completes six months, say experts.

–          By manoj kumar

Importance of Breastfeeding for your Baby:

Giving birth is perhaps the most joyous occasion in a woman’s life. Indeed, someone has rightly called it ‘the most profound initiation to spirituality a woman can have’. The baby and the mother share an inseparable bond from the very first day, which is further cemented by breastfeeding. Famous British obstetrician Grantly Dick-Read said, “A newborn baby has only three demands. They need warmth in the arms of the mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence. Breastfeeding satisfies all three.” On the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week’ (from August 1 to August 7), we bring to you vital information on complimentary breastfeeding.

Why is it important?

Introduction of safe, adequate and complimentary feeding to a baby is absolutely essential for ensuring optimal physical and mental growth. After a certain time, mother’s milk alone is not sufficient to meet the nutritional needs of the growing child. Once the baby completes six months of age, he begins to need additional sources of energy and other essential nutrients for good health, growth and development. The act of complementing mother’s milk with semi-solid and solid foods is called complementary feeding. Doctors, however, suggest that complementary foods should not be introduced either too early or too late as it may lead to health consequences later.

According to Dr Rahul Nagpal, director and head of department, pediatrics, at Fortis Hospitals, the time period of six months till 18 to 24 months is vulnerable for a child. “The most rapid growth of human body occurs during infancy and nutritional needs are at their highest per unit of body weight. This is the time when malnutrition starts in many infants,” says Dr Nagpal.

It is only at six months that a baby’s digestive system is developed enough to digest a range of solid and semi-solid foods. “The baby attains the necessary motor skills and the digestive and the kidney functions are sufficiently mature enough by six months to enable him to process some complementary foods in addition to mother’s milk,” adds Dr Nagpal.

Food with breastfeeding:

Feeding solid foods too early has been associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, celiac disease, allergies and other disorders such as eczema later in childhood. Yet, the practice of untimely introduction of complementary feeding continues due to lack of awareness among mothers. In fact, more than 30 per cent of infants aged between four and five months are introduced early to complementary food, despite medical advice.

Dr V.V. Varadarajan, director, division of pediatrics at Sooriya Hospital in Chennai says, “An infant requires calories, proteins, vitamins and minerals in the right quantity every day. The role of the doctor is crucial in explaining these options to the parents.” Medical experts say that babies should be introduced to complementary food with softer and smoother texture before gradually moving on to thicker and firmer foods. “Even the portion size should be gradually increased over the weeks,” adds Dr Varadarajan.

However, introducing complementary food later than six months can also impact baby’s health, triggering nutritional deficiencies as mother’s milk alone may not be able to meet all the nutritional requirements of the growing age. “Nutritional recommendations for the complementary feeding period are based on the concept that mother’s milk will not meet full requirements of energy, proteins and micronutrients beyond six months of age,” adds Dr Varadarajan.

Children fed only on their mother’s milk after this period face the prospects of a nutritional gap and lowered immunity against preventable illnesses such as diarrhea and pneumonia. As per the Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) guidelines, this is a serious issue in India where around 40 per cent of children remain without any complementary source of feeding till they attain eight months of age.

Diet that helps:

Complementary food for children needs to be timely given, adequate, appropriate as well as safe and hygienic. Any compromise with the above factors may impact child’s health and hinder growth. Complementary food is considered adequate when it provides sufficient energy and other essential nutrients to meet the child’s growing developmental needs. It should also be easy to digest.

Dr Nagpal says that for infants on complementary foods, iron requires special attention because its deficiency is the highest among children less than two years of age. “Providing complementary foods rich in essential fatty acids along with mother’s milk will help in ensuring adequate supply of these essential nutrients. Also, important are Vitamin D—for infants with inadequate exposure to sunlight—and Vitamin A in areas where deficiency rates are high,” he adds.

The period from birth till two years of age is the ‘critical window’ for the promotion of optimal growth, health, and development of a baby. Therefore, it becomes imperative that you take care of your little one’s nutritional needs with help from medical advice.

Make it interesting:

According to 11th Five Year Plan’s Working Group on Integrating Nutrition with Health, about 12 per cent of infants up to six months of age suffer from malnutrition in the country. However, this figure for children aged between 12 and 23 months is a staggering 58.5 per cent. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, Government of India, says that over 38 per cent of children below three years are short in height, while about half are underweight and thin for their age. Medical experts are of the opinion that the steep rise in malnutrition among children less than two years of age is largely due to improper feeding practices.


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