We must close the knowledge-gap on breastfeeding and show its transformative value

This week, World Breastfeeding Week presents an opportunity to promote the widespread benefits of breastfeeding on an international scale, in the hope of making this vital practice a global norm. According to recommendations from the World Health Organisation, exclusive breastfeeding - breastfeeding in the absence of additional supplements - should be practiced for the first 6 months of life, followed by a period of feeding breast-milk in addition to other foods for at least 18 months thereafter.

Sadly, this wholly natural, simple method of child nourishment is not universally practiced, with figures particularly low in Sub-Saharan Africa. In 2015 only 27% of babies in West and Central Africa received exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) for the first 6 months, rendering this region the lowest in the world. Although breastfeeding is widely practiced across the Africa, many babies are also given additional water by their mothers. Yet the human body provides the exact composition of nutrients and water in a mother's milk, making additional nutrition both redundant and dangerous for an infant. The readiness of mothers to provide their baby with extra supplements is worrisome, and highlights the educational vacuum that exists surrounding breastfeeding practice.

Nigeria, the country of my birth, has the poorest EBF rate in Africa, with just 17% of children being exclusively breastfed to the optimum age. It is paradoxical that it is in countries and regions of poverty and a lack of resources where nature's mechanism of child nourishment is most flatly rejected.

The health benefits of breast milk to a child are innumerable, and extend far beyond the realm of nutrition. Enzymes in the milk work to activate and enhance the baby's immune system, as well as stimulating growth. The enzymes received in breast milk therefore have the effect of greatly decreasing a child's vulnerability to childhood cancers, infectious diseases, respiratory infections, neurological disorders, allergies, and epilepsy and depression in later life, to name a few. Likewise, the mother also benefits from breastfeeding, which provides a level of protection from breast and ovarian cancer, and expedites a mother's recovery from childbirth.

Strikingly, health indices are just one of many aspects of wellbeing that are positively affected by breastfeeding; recent studies published in 2015 suggested that breastfeeding not only increased intelligence, but it also improved educational attainment and earning ability. Those that were breastfed longer were found to have increased language performance ability and visual reception, and improved motor control performance.

In contrast, additional nutrition can lead to a host of complications. The 63% of mothers in West and Central Africa that fail to provide this basic method of nourishment to their babies are victims of misinformation and hearsay, and we at the WBFA strive to reverse this trend.

The WBFA recognise EBF as a key to sustainable development, and a mechanism for opening doors and improving lives. We pioneered Nigeria's first civil society health visitor program supporting mothers through antenatal, perinatal and postnatal birth preparedness and we have seen the impact these can have first hand. This week we will be hosting MamaCare Antenatal Classes and Breastfeeding Initiative campaigns in Nigeria to celebrate the theme of this week, in alignment with our overall mission to improve perinatal care in Africa. Working in association with a wide range of organisations and individuals who share our mission, the WBFA strives to promote, protect and support EBF in Nigeria. With the breastfeeding training simulators donated to us by the Laerdal Global Health, the WBFA hopes that our ambitious aims can be accomplished.

Indeed, there is much to be done. In order to improve the rates of optimal EBF, we must firstly address the barriers to this practice. Studies have concluded a set of reasons that deter women in Nigeria from EBF; fear of passing on illness, insufficient lactation, ill health, social stigma, and pervasive old wives tales were all identified as factors that dissuaded women from EBF. From these responses, we can begin to map out a plan of what needs to be done to make universal EBF a reality.

Firstly, basic education on the benefits of EBF would thwart belief in old wives tales, and should serve to extinguish social stigma surrounding breastfeeding. The WBFA already have a training programme in progress, but we must expand our reach to even the most remote corners of Africa.

Secondly, health factors that prevent women from producing sufficient milk, or deter mothers from breast-feeding from of fear of contagion, highlight the heightened importance of a mother's health during and after the gestation period. Healthcare, and the fulfillment of SDG 3, is absolutely vital for development and societal progress. Studies have shown that women who attended four or more antenatal visits were significantly more likely to engage in EBF. This ascertains and justifies our emphasis on maternal health and increased access to perinatal care.

The WBFA is doing all it can to ensure that EBF is normalized. We are promoting the "10 steps to successful breastfeeding" programme, which provides health professionals with the framework and tools to change practice and achieve measurable results in improving breastfeeding. But greater action must be taken from the top. We must call upon all African leaders to make this issue both a priority, and a stepping-stone to wider development.