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World Breastfeeding Week Promotes Infant Health

To celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, regional organizations are stressing how exclusive breast-feeding in the first six months of life can reduce infant mortality.

This year's World Breastfeeding Week's activities are focusing on educating women in West and Central Africa about breast-feeding practices that can reduce infant mortality.

A nutrition specialist at UNICEF's West and Central Africa Office, Robert Johnston, said women in the region have a lot of knowledge to draw from, but essential improvements can be made.

"We have got a very strange situation in West and Central Africa that almost all women are experts in breastfeeding, because they do breast feed," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of women do breast feed. They do not breast feed exclusively in the first six months, and they often do not begin breastfeeding within the first hour after birth."

According to UNICEF, only one third of women initiate breastfeeding within the recommended first hour after birth. Part of World Breastfeeding Week's initiatives is to help mothers and hospital workers understand the importance of immediate contact with the mother after birth.

"The other point is that by starting the breastfeeding early, the child receives the colostrom, which is the specialized breast milk in the first few days after birth," added Johnston. "It delivers a very high fat content which allows the child to have immediate energy stores to survive for the next couple days and it also provides a high dose of vitamin A and other immune factors that the child needs to get started."

Exclusive breastfeeding is the best way to promote the health of the infant, say health officials at the World Health Organization. It promotes sensory and cognitive development, as well as protecting the baby from infections and chronic diseases. Johnston added that optimal practices such as these have the potential to reduce infant mortality by 13 percent.