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Why breastfeeding is best feeding

Nandkumar M Kamat

Twenty years ago, I had a chat with one of the finest paediatricians in India, professor Bhujanga Rao of Goa Medical College. “I am alarmed by the rising trend of children being born with low weight at birth,” he said, and pointed that about one third (37 per cent) of the newly born in Goa were found underweight. He heavily stressed on maternal nutritional education and subsidised nutrition rich diet. “No substitute for complete nutrition in mothers’ milk,” he declared to me.

Human female breasts have been worshipped as ‘domes of love’. From the prehistoric stage of human evolution there has been fascination with voluptuous figurines of ‘mother goddesses’ indicating the dependence of thousands of generations of Homo sapiens on maternal nourishment and care.

UN member nations are celebrating World Breastfeeding Week (Aug 1- August 7) and this would be followed a month later by national nutrition week (September 1- September 7). It is shocking to see that some women ‘experts’ or resource persons who have never breastfed their children lecturing others on the benefits of breastfeeding. Very few people know the sleepless nights lactating mothers must spend because one can’t predict when a hungry infant could wake up in the middle of the night. Having practical experience of watching my son happily breastfeeding for three years (recommended period minimum six months) and being a strong champion of feeding colostrum (locally known as chik) to newly born infants followed by mother’s milk here is an article to promote healthy breastfeeding in our highly urbanised state.

Experts have reported that in India, 36 per cent deaths and 42 per cent DALYs (disability adjusted life year) lost are due to communicable diseases, perinatal and maternal conditions, and nutritional deficiencies. More than 70 per cent of preschool children consume less than 50 per cent of recommended daily amount (RDA) of iron, vitamin A and some B vitamins, particularly riboflavin and folic acid. It is shocking to see grossly underweight and stunted twenty-year olds in colleges and university campuses. Most students above 18 years don’t really look like well-developed young adults. Their malnutrition clearly shows. Many of them never got the mother’s milk. The gender imbalance is also striking. Female infants are not fed at all or are weaned early. Male infants get special feeds. Except in rural pockets, breastfeeding children is now going out of fashion.

For human males, the female breasts, from the days of worship of mother or earth goddesses- the Venuses, hold special attraction. But it is wrong to stress on only the erotic or sexual symbolism of female bosom because males really have no role to feed or nurse the babies. Mothers bear the evolutionary burden of gestation, delivery, and early rearing. Every teenager, every bachelor and spinster in Goa, and almost all the professionals and educated parents need to read most of the popular books by Desmond Morris, an expert on animal and human behaviour.

In his celebrated book ‘The Naked Woman’ (2005) Desmond Morris (visit him to know more at has devoted a full chapter to female breasts. He writes –“ the female breasts have received more erotic attention from males than any other part of the body… the breasts of the human female have two biological functions, one parental and other sexual. Parentally they act as gigantic sweat glands producing the modified sweat we call milk. The glandular tissues that produce the milk become enlarged during pregnancy, making the breasts slightly bigger than usual. The blood vessels serving these tissues become much more conspicuous on the breast surfaces. As the milk forms it passes along ducts towards special storage spaces called sinuses. These are positioned in the centre of the breast behind the dark-brown areolar patches that surround the nipples. From these sinuses there are some 15 to 20 tubes, the lactiferous ducts leading to each nipple. When a baby sucks it takes the hole of the areolar patch and the nipple in mouth, squeezing the brown skin with its’ gums and the squirting the milk out of the nipple. If it takes only the nipple into its mouth it has a problem, because squeezing the nipple alone does not produce the desired milk. It may respond to this frustration by chewing on the nipple, which does little good either to mother or offspring”. So Desmond Morris advices the mothers to help the baby by squeezing more of her breast into the baby’s mouth.

Unfortunately, most of the resource persons in Goa shy away from the most important aspect of practical breastfeeding – how to breastfeed the baby. This dimension is missed during all the programmes during this week.

The infant feed companies are heavily influencing parental decision making. For the past 25 years, the state nutrition programme of Goa’s health department has been totally neglected. Detailed recommendations given by a subcommittee on nutrition are included in the report of state government’s task force committee on food processing policy submitted in November 2011. But the report is still pending with industries department. National Nutrition Policy (1993), National Nutrition Plan of Action (1995) and National Nutrition Mission (2001) are inadequate to address many Goa specific issues.

The first step towards building a healthy, robust generation begins with holistic maternal nutrition and extended breastfeeding. That’s why 200 countries are now convinced that ‘breastfeeding is best feeding’. This week is therefore aimed to offer our gratitude to lactating mothers and the sacrifices they make to create a healthy generation.

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