Investment in breastfeeding: An asset in Nigeria’s future
There is a simple action that can save lives, drive economic development and break the cycle of malnutrition in Nigeria: breastfeeding.New research published earlier this year by the medical journal The Lancet showed that despite breastfeeding being the norm for many mothers, only 17 per cent of Nigerian babies are fed only breast milk for the first six months of life-a rate that is one of Africa’s lowest and has barely improved since 1999.
Breast milk gives babies all the nutrients and energy they need for the first six months of life and protects infants against common childhood diseases-especially when mothers start within an hour after birth. Delaying the start of breastfeeding or giving young babies other food and liquids, such as water, puts them at risk of diarrhea or malnutrition.
When children don’t have access to the nutrients they need, their brains and bodies cannot grow to their full potential. They get sick more easily. Many die. In fact, an estimated 100,000 lives are lost in Nigeria every year due to sub-optimal breastfeeding.
Those who do survive often suffer the lifelong consequences of poor nutrition. Currently, 11 million Nigerian children are stunted because they didn’t receive the right nutrients early in life.
Akin Adesina, President of the African Development Bank and former Nigerian Minister of Agriculture, has said that investing in nutrition is vital to building the “gray-matter infrastructure”-or brain power-that ultimately will drive future economic progress on the African continent.
Recent estimates indicate that every dollar invested in nutrition yields a return of $17 in greater earning capacity in the Nigerian workplace.Breastfeeding is a key component of gray-matter infrastructure. Studies show that increased intelligence as a result of breastfeeding translates to improved academic performance, and increased long-term earning and productivity. In Nigeria alone, The Lancet found that the estimated costs of not breastfeeding amount to $150 million annually.
Spurred by this new data, the Government of Nigeria and its partners committed to protect, promote and support breastfeeding by signing the Abuja Breastfeeding Declaration in June. The Declaration prioritizes the actions outlined in The Lancet, such as enforcing stricter regulations against the breast-milk substitute industry and fostering positive social attitudes about breastfeeding. More importantly, the Declaration recognizes that breastfeeding plays a critical role in improving nutrition, education and maternal and child health and survival, and is therefore a fundamental driver in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.
The Declaration is a strategic step toward strengthening breastfeeding policies and programs in Nigeria. The Government of Nigeria has policies in place to support breastfeeding-including the National Policy on Food and Nutrition, the National Strategic Plan of Action for Nutrition and the National Policy on Infant and Young Child Feeding in Nigeria-but much still needs to happen for these policies to be implemented fully.
As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week this week, let’s recognize that breastfeeding isn’t the sole responsibility of women. The evidence is clear: breastfeeding is key to better health and economic progress nationally. It is up to all of us to support breastfeeding mothers at home, at work and in our communities.
That is why both of our foundations-the Dangote Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation- have committed to increasing rates of breastfeeding, as well as improve complementary feeding. Working with partners across government, civil society, media and the private sector, we strive to ensure Nigerian children benefit from breastfeeding in their first hour of life, exclusively for their first six months and then combined with appropriate foods until they are at least two years old.
We can improve breastfeeding rates in Nigeria if we all work together to ensure that every Nigerian woman is empowered to breastfeed and every child receives the nutrition he or she needs right from the start. With its vital role in child health, growth and cognitive development, better breastfeeding practices will be essential to unleashing the potential of Nigeria’s next generation.
. Ms. Zouera Youssoufou is the managing director and CEO of the Dangote Foundation. Ms. Youssoufou leads the foundation’s efforts to improve health, nutrition and educational outcomes for the less fortunate, primarily in Nigeria and Africa.
. Mr. Shawn Baker is the director of the nutrition team at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Mr. Baker leads the foundation’s efforts to ensure that women and children receive the nutrition they need to live healthy and productive lives.