In continuation of my piece last week, there is still much left to say about the importance of breastfeeding. The Union Health Minister, Dr Harsh Vardhan, tweeted at the end of Breastfeeding Week (1st to 7th August), pressing for the need to observe ‘Breastfeeding Week’ from the 1st to 7th of every month, until 2022.
Quite evidently, there is much scope to improve breastfeeding rates in India.
As someone in charge of the health of the nation, the Minister understands that an absence of awareness around breastfeeding will gravely increase the disease burden of the nation. This, in turn, escalates the expense of the healthcare system and also affects the economy.
The Breastfeeding Lancet Series 2016: India’s Roadmap estimates a figure of Rs 4,300 crores that can be added to India’s economy annually, with a simple low-cost measure--breastfeeding.
In addition to the many boons of breastfeeding for both the mother and the child that I had talked about last week, there are also many ancillary benefits.
The physical contact, skin-to-skin, leads to secure attachment and bonding and eases anxiety in the baby, who has to deal with the many stimulants in the environment.
The fragrance of the mother’s milk and the sound of the mother’s heartbeat aid the development of the baby’s olfactory and auditory senses. For the mother, the risk of postpartum depression risk decreases.
Besides highlighting the many virtues of breastfeeding, there is also a need to address the apprehension and scepticism in new mothers. Behaviour change happens best when it is incentivised.
The biggest incentive for any mother is the prevention of several ailments in the baby, such as diarrhoea and pneumonia.
Another important aspect of breastfeeding, which is not often discussed, is that human milk is a powerful form of Chrono-nutrition. This means that breastfeeding helps communicate the time-of-the-day to the infant.
It is interesting to note how the various elements in the milk--nutritional, hormonal and immunity-building–vary across the hours of the day in sync with the circadian cycle and alter its composition.
Infants are not born with a fully operational circadian clock–breast milk helps to establish the circadian beats in the infant.
The variations in the level of cortisol and melatonin in the milk, at different times of the day and night, is illustrative. Melatonin levels rise before nighttime and cortisol peaks during the morning hours. Increased cortisol levels during the day will promote alertness and higher levels of melatonin in the evening foster better sleep and relaxes digestion.
It has been observed that breastfed babies have higher sleep efficiency and less fragmented sleep patterns when compared with bottle-fed babies.
In all likelihood, this can be attributed to the chrono-signals received from breast milk.
The importance of the circadian rhythm is gaining importance in the discourse of health and well-being, and giving it the right start by promoting breastfeeding is only appropriate.