Breast feeding key to ending childhood malnutrition in developing countries

Published: Friday, June 24 2011 6:58 p.m. MDT

It's free, it doesn't require refrigeration and it's available in even the most remote towns.

Breast milk, mused New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof in a recent editorial, may be the "miracle cure" for childhood malnutrition.

"When we think of global poverty, we sometimes assume that the challenges are so vast that any solutions must be extraordinarily complex and expensive," he wrote. "Well, some are. But almost nothing would do as much to fight starvation around the world as the ultimate low-tech solution: exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life."

Babies who are breast fed are six times more likely to survive their first few months than children who are not, according to UNICEF. The World Health Organization strongly recommends feeding children nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life.

But despite well-documented advantages, in Niger, where Kristof is currently hanging out on assignment, only 9 percent of babies are exclusively breast fed, according to a 2007 national nutrition survey. Few places in Africa boast rates above 20 percent.

Lack of education is the biggest problem, Kristof wrote. Many mothers falsely believe that breast milk is not enough.

"On a hot day, babies need water," said Gayshita Abdullah, a mother Kristof encountered on his travels. If there's not a well nearby, sometimes Abdullah will scoop water for her baby out of a mud puddle.

Proper breast feeding could prevent 1.4 million child deaths each year, according to a 2008 study published in the British medical journal The Lancet.

"As far as nutritional interventions that have been studies, we have crushing evidence of breast-feeding's efficacy in reducing child mortality," Shawn Baker, a nutrition specialist with Helen Keller International, told the New York Times. "It's the oldest nutritional intervention known to our species, and it's available to everybody. But for a development community too focused on technological fixes, it hasn't gained the traction it should."

EMAIL: estuart@desnews.com, TWITTER: elizMstuart

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