Breastfeeding in the DRC: our expert reviews the situation

BreastfeedingEvery year in August, Breastfeeding Week allows us to revisit this family practice which is essential for the health and survival of children.  Théophile Bansimba, UNICEF Nutrition Specialist, answers our questions about the importance of breastfeeding and the current situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Why is breastfeeding so important ?

Breastmilk has numerous advantages. For the child and their health, survival and sound development:  breastmilk contains colostrum, which protects the child against illness (first vaccine), and all the nutrients and water (87%) needed in the first 6 months of life; it protects notably against diarrhoea, obesity, malnutrition and serious respiratory infections; breastmilk promotes the child’s growth and harmonious development, thereby preventing stunted growth; it encourages brain development; it strengthens the emotional bond between baby and mother; and it strengthens the immune system against illness.

For the mother, breastfeeding: facilitates delivery of the placenta and reduces the risk of postpartum haemorrhage; stimulates milk production; and constitutes a method of contraception which is more than 98% effective during the first 6 months, if breastfeeding is exclusive.

For the family, breastfeeding exclusively is attractive: there is none of the cost associated with buying formula milk; it reduces the medical costs which result from illness and imparts social well-being due to the lack of illness; finally, it removes the stress and anxiety of illness.

For the country, working towards sustainable development, a major benefit of breastfeeding is in reducing childhood illness (diarrhoea, Acute Kidney Injury etc) and maternal and infant mortality, along with their associated costs for the healthcare system, and in increasing national productive strength and human capital.

We must help mothers to breastfeed, so that they do not have to choose between their economic activity, their social life and breastfeeding.  The wish of mothers to breastfeed is not always, by itself, enough.  Breastfeeding must be understood, accepted and encouraged by all.

Could breastfeeding therefore reduce infant mortality in the DRC ?

We estimate that, in the DRC, 1 in 2 deaths amongst children under five years of age is linked to malnutrition.  Nearly 1 in 2 children in the country is affected by malnutrition, in the form of stunted growth.  Breastmilk provides everything that a child needs in their first months of life; prolonging breastfeeding would reduce stunting amongst young children.

It is possible to go further.  25% of infant and child mortality is a consequence of diarrhoea or pneumonia, and it has been shown that breastfeeding protects children from diarrhoeal illnesses and respiratory infections.  Optimal breastfeeding offers a significant advantage and enables a 13% reduction in the mortality rate of young children.

What is the state of breastfeeding in the DRC ?

Let’s recall some key figures.  98% of children born during the last five years were breastfed, and the changes in the practice of exclusive breastfeeding are very pleasing.  It which doubled between 2001 and 2013-14, increasing from 24% to 48% of children.

However only 1 child in 2 (52%) was breastfed in the hour immediately following birth; they did not therefore benefit in time from their first “vaccine”.  Two thirds of children are breastfed until 23 months, but less than 1 child in 2 was breastfed exclusively for 6 months (48%).  Greater efforts must therefore be made to help mothers to adopt and continue this practice.

Why does Breastfeeding Week 2016 link this practice to sustainable development ?

Breastfeeding presents numerous advantages which can contribute to the country’s sustainable development.Rappelons les nombreux atouts pour l’enfant, sa santé, sa survie et son bon développement : le lait maternel contient le colostrum qui le protège des maladies (Premier vaccin), tous les éléments nutritifs et de l’eau (87 %) pour les 6 premiers mois de la vie ; il protège contre la diarrhée, l’obésité, la malnutrition et les infections respiratoires aigües, notamment ; l’allaitement maternel permet une croissance et un développement harmonieux de l’enfant, empêchant ainsi les retards de croissance ; il favorise le développement du cerveau ; renforce le lien affectif entre l’enfant et la mère ; et il renforce le système immunitaire contre les maladies.

Breastfeeding is a bearable source of development.  Breastmilk is a universal natural resource and the most natural food possible, going directly from producer to consumer.  It is not dependent on any industry or natural resource and it produces no waste.  Breastfeeding is the ultimate “biodegradable packaging”.Pour la famille, l’allaitement maternel exclusif est un atout : pas de dépenses liées à l’achat du lait artificiel ; il réduit les frais médicaux liés aux maladies et confère un bien-être social dû à l’absence des maladies ; enfin, il supprime les stress et les émotions des malaPour le pays, dons un objectif de développement durable, l‘allaitement maternel a pour atout majeur de réduire les maladies infantiles (diarrhées, IRA, etc.) et la mortalité materno-infantile ; ainsi que les charges liées pour le système de santé ; et d’augmenter la force productive et le capital humain national.

Breastfeeding is also a viable source of development.  Lack of breastfeeding is a risk factor for maternal and child health.  It does not constitute a barrier to productivity.  It benefits the entire population, whatever their living conditions.

Breastfeeding can be considered an equitable source of development, as it is accessible to all, everywhere, without discrimination; it places no burden on the family budget and allows all children to receive free, appropriate nutrition.

Lastly, breastfeeding is environmentally sound.  It requires no energy (neither petrol, wood nor gas), and therefore does not destroy the environment.

This is why we must take up the challenge of making exclusive breastfeeding, from the first hour of life until age 6 months, widespread.  It is both an issue for society and an essential family practice.

More posts on breasfeeding.


Photo : UNICEF RDC Puldowski 2013

Translated from French by Julia Bayton

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Justine Mounet

Justine Mounet est consultante en communication à l’UNICEF RDC. Justine a rejoint l'UNICEF en 2013 car elle est croit que le plaidoyer et la participation de chacun sont essentiels pour faire avancer la société, le bien-être et les droits de tous. Justine est spécialisée dans l'engagement des jeunes à travers le web, convaincue que ce sont des acteurs puissants du changement. Son leitmotiv ? "L'arbre qui tombe fait plus de bruit que la forêt qui pousse" : portons la voix de la forêt en germe !

Justine Mounet is a Communication Consultant at UNICEF in DRC. Justine joined UNICEF in 2013 because she believes that advocacy and everyone's participation are essential for advancing society, as well as the well-being and the rights of all. Justine has specialized in digital youth engagement, convinced that they are powerful actors of change. Her leitmotiv? "The tree that falls makes more noise than the forest that grows": let's make the growing forest heard!.

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