In August 1990, the WHO and UNICEF signed a declaration indicating the need to promote, protect and support breastfeeding and initiated a campaign that seeks to sensitize, inform and create the conditions that allow women to breastfeed their children during the first six months and continue breastfeeding for two years or more. Since then, the first week of August of each year marks the World Breastfeeding Week.
In 2021 the week is celebrated under the slogan: «Protecting Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility», trying to emphasize the importance of contributing from different places to make breastfeeding possible as a relevant component in children’s right to a full development.
Breastfeeding and child development
Different scientific disciplines agree on the importance of breastfeeding for the development of babies. This relevance is not limited to the nutritional aspect, but is also associated with the emotional and has effects on the immune system.
The superiority of breast milk as food during the first months of life is determined by its composition, which adapts to the needs of the infant and varies throughout lactation, throughout the day, and even throughout each breastfeed.
But the beneficial effects of breastfeeding on the development of the baby are not only related to the composition of the milk but to the act of breastfeeding as a singular form of encounter, of frequent physical and emotional contact between mother and child: the exchange of glances, embraces, the direct suckling of the mother’s breast that cause a series of hormonal processes in the mother and facilitates a relationship of secure attachment essential for her development as an independent and secure person. For all these reasons, breastfeeding is the preferred method of feeding and nurturing infants and young children and constitutes a central aspect in the “good start of life”.
In recent decades, advances in neuroscience have shown what psychologists who have studied early development have affirmed since the middle of the last century. Boys and girls from the beginning of life have the right to full development and this implies ensuring access to favorable experiences, breastfeeding being one of them.
The experiences in the first 1000 days of life are essential for the formation of personality, emotional stability, cognitive abilities, social competences, even health, which will allow them to face the challenges they will face in the future stages of their development. This stage constitutes a critical period for brain development, since the development of neuronal connections is greatly accelerated. At the same time, brain development also depends on the environment, on the experiences and interactions with their parents or main caregivers, among which breastfeeding is a relevant experience.
Breastfeeding in times of pandemic
In the framework of the COVID 19 pandemic, we must emphasize that breast milk is the best protection against diseases. It contains specific antibodies against the viruses to which we are exposed. The woman, through her milk, transfers to the baby the defenses that protect him from respiratory diseases in the environment. The COVID-19 virus is not transmitted through breast milk. In times of coronavirus, more than ever, breastfeeding helps protect children.
Breastfeeding: facilitators and obstacles
The fact that many children do not access this experience in the manner, constancy and during the desirable periods of time is not the sole responsibility of the mothers. It is necessary to analyze the cultural, social and economic conditions in the exercise of motherhood.
There are different factors in the environment that facilitate or obstruct breastfeeding. These can be ordered from the micro, from the most immediate environment, to macrosocial levels associated with the cultural, the legal protection and the economic dimension.
The gender dimension and its reflection in family life is not alien to the problem. A facilitating aspect of breastfeeding is the degree of responsibility assumed by male figures in the care and upbringing of children at an early age. Their participation in household chores and parenting is directly related to the possibilities of enabling, promoting and sustaining breastfeeding by mothers.
In the region there is labor legislation that seeks to facilitate breastfeeding. However, whether due to insufficient legal frameworks, non-compliance with them, or due to informal or precarious conditions in which a high percentage of women in the Americas work, labor activity is still one of the main obstacles to the realization and adequate prolongation of breastfeeding.
Despite the awareness-raising actions carried out by different actors, attitudes of discrimination or censorship continue to exist towards mothers who breastfeed in public spaces or even in their workplaces.
Another threat that falls on breastfeeding is the abusive use of substitutes. Although the approval by the WHO of the «International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes» in May 1981 was a significant step in protecting children’s health against pressure from the pharmaceutical industry, this threat remains latent.
The Code explicitly establishes the prohibition of advertising, the use of sales strategies and all forms of promotion for the general public and for pregnant women, mothers or members of their families. Product labels should not contain images that idealize the use of breast milk substitutes. Information on labels should explain the benefits of breastfeeding and the costs and dangers associated with the unnecessary or incorrect use of infant formula and other breast milk substitutes. Although this Code was incorporated in whole or in part by almost all the states, the market pressure on child health systems persists in new ways in various forms.
Breastfeeding is one more example of the tensions that cross the field of childhood and the way in which these promote or violate their rights in all phases of their development, from its analysis the contradiction between the Best Interest of the child is evident and other interests that predominate in our societies.
Víctor Giorgi, IIN-OAS Director General