The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Abill passed in the Lok Sabha this week is all set to rob Indian mothers of their fundamental right to choose what is best for their babies ó exclusive breast feeding or a supplementary diet of baby foods that contain all nutrients needed for a balanced growth.

The Central government seems to have suddenly realized that the World Health Organization directive to encourage breast feeding needs to be implemented forcefully in a country where more than 70 per cent mothers are undernourished or anaemic and give birth to children who mostly suffer from malnutrition. But a mother who herself does not get food rich in nutrients cannot be expected to pass on proper nutrition to her child through her milk.

The bill makes breast feeding mandatory for the first six months, and says this can be continued up to two years with a supplementary diet. The legislation however prohibits all kinds of advertisement and promotion of infant milk substitutes and even feeding bottles.

There is no doubt that the government has been a bit highhanded on the issue. Instead of encouraging a woman to breast feed her baby and create an environment that is more conducive to breast feeding, it is thoughtless on its part to just pass a legislation that will force a choice on women.

Not always the best

There is no doubt that motherís milk is best for the baby for it is supposed to contain the right nutrients in the right proportions. A mother not only passes the nutrients but also anti-bodies that are needed for a childís immunity in the initial years. But scientific research in the leading metros of India suggest that along with nutrients, mothers also pass on deadly pollutants and chemicals to the babies through their milk as they themselves are exposed to pollutants either in their food or in the air they inhale. Instead of guarding the child against common ailments, breast milk can therefore make the infant susceptible to a lot of diseases like cancer.

For mothers of rural India breast feeding has always been the only means of nourishing the infant and this has been a fact much before the Lok Sabha had even thought of complying with WHO guidelines. This is partly because expensive baby foods are beyond the reach of rural mothers. However, women in rural India are mostly undernourished and their poor health poses a problem to the childís overall growth. This is true especially for a mother who gives birth almost every alternate year and is thus bound to suffer from anaemia. Lack of major vitamins and minerals in motherís milk lead to stunted mental and physical growth. Iron and calcium supplements are hardly ever supplied by health officials in villages.

Inconsistent care

On the other hand, breast feeding babies for six months is almost an impossibility for urban mothers, even if they are willing to do so. The government offers around four months maternity leave and private companies give anything between six weeks and three months paid leave. If a mother is unable to constantly attend to the baby and has to go out to work within two months of delivery, it is unlikely that breastfeeding can be continued beyond the first few months.

Mothers who undergo caesarian section find the choice even more difficult because for more than two weeks she is on constant medication that include strong antibiotics and painkillers to heal her wounds. Hence the baby is always given an alternate supply of milk food along with motherís milk and gradually babies themselves start preferring the tastier alternative to motherís milk.

Breast-feeding needs a lot of patience, time, and other favourable factors like a proper hormonal balance. The last may not always be right, which is why some mothers might have problems producing the necessary amount of milk. It is alright to stress the importance of breastfeeding. But what needs to be ensured by the administration is proper nutrition for the mother. For only healthy mothers can produce healthy babies.

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