GWERU: The first week in August is World Breastfeeding Awareness Week and the aim is to highlight the benefits that breastfeeding can have on the health and welfare of babies and their mothers.
In recent years, experts have encouraged mothers to harvest their very first milk, the colostrum noting that it is rich in nutrients and antibodies and can be collected during pregnancy and frozen in syringes for the baby following birth.
Colostrum harvesting is often encouraged in the third trimester of pregnancy so that it is available for the baby should the mother choose not to breastfeed or be unable to breastfeed due to medical complications.
For mothers who decide to breastfeed, experts further advise that breastfeeding exclusively for six months offers the most protection. This includes protection from infection as breast milk contains natural antibodies, right combination of vitamins and nutrition that is easy for the baby to digest, reduction in the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and, childhood leukaemia and long-term health benefits including the baby being less likely to develop diabetes.
From six months onwards, breastfeeding can be combined with the introduction of solid food. The baby will continue to be protected from infection.
However, the COVID-19 pandemic has been raising questions for pregnant and breastfeeding women, as there are some sources online claiming that being infected with COVID-19 or vaccinated against the virus could be harmful to the baby.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) actually says breastfeeding is highly recommended to nursing women though it advises precaution.
“Wear a medical mask while breastfeeding the baby. Wash hands with soap and water or use alcohol-based hand rub before breastfeeding. In addition, routine clean and disinfect surfaces around you and continue to keep social distancing with others,” wrote WHO.
For breastfeeding mothers who wish to have the Covid-19 vaccine, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists confirms that vaccination is recommended for breastfeeding women. It confirms that ‘there is no plausible mechanism by which any vaccine ingredient could pass to your baby through breast milk. You should therefore not stop breastfeeding in order to be vaccinated against Covid-19.’
The vaccine does not pass-through breast milk but antibodies do, so it has been suggested that breastfed babies could possibly have some protection from Covid-19 as they could benefit from their mother’s antibodies.
Locally, Scaling Up Nutrition Alliance shares the same sentiments.
“Breast milk has all the nutrients that babies require in their right quantities and qualities unlike any other foods. In this era of COVID-19 it is key to note that breast milk does not transmit the virus from the mother to the child so it is safe breastfeed in these times,” said Kudakwashe Zombe of Scaling Up Nutrition Alliance.
Health Communicators Forum Of Zimbabwe chairperson, Anna Miti has however lamented limited information pertaining such subjects.
“There has not been enough information that has been put out there concerning breast feeding during the COVID-19, there is limited coverage over the issue so as Health Communicators Forum Zimbabwe, we urge all communicators to spare time and debunk existing myths for a healthier nation
As health communicators, we will continue fighting myths and communicating health news for the benefit of the nation at large though I will repeat that more energy still needs to be channelled towards health communication,” Miti said.
“It was worrisome to witness that during initial days into the vaccination period, a number of pregnant women and nursing mothers were turned away at vaccination centers, it only took the Ministry of Health to issue out a statement together with WHO that they can be vaccinated.
It was also difficult for health communicators to find local experts to comment on such issues so as to debunk myths that were affecting progress against fighting COVID-19,” she added.
World Breastfeeding Week is an annual celebration held every year from August 1 to 7 in over 120 countries to generate awareness among new parents and enhance the health of infants worldwide
In a joint statement by UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore and WHO Director-General Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also advised on the advantages of breastfeeding.
“Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of birth, followed by exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond offer a powerful line of defense against all forms of child malnutrition, including wasting and obesity. Breastfeeding also acts as babies’ first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses”.
This years’ celebrations were held under the theme Protect Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility.