The latest South Africa Demographic and Health Survey 2016 released by Stats SA reveals that interventions encouraging exclusive breastfeeding have rendered extremely positive results.
The main objective of the survey was to track changes in the demographic and health-related indicators from 1998 eg. family planning, maternal and child health, child survival, HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections (STIs), reproductive health, nutrition, and adult health. The previous survey reported exclusive breastfeeding (up to 6 months) at only 8 percent in South Africa -- the lowest in the world. The latest data suggests a significant increase up to 32 percent.
While there has been a substantial improvement, South Africa still trails behind the world average of 43 percent. UNICEF reports that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is "safest and healthiest option for children everywhere and has great potential to save lives". According to the organisation, infants who received foods and liquids in addition to breast milk before six months were up to 2.8 times more likely to die than their exclusively breastfed peers. Infants who are not breastfed in such contexts are 14 times more likely to die.
Across the board, long periods of breastfeeding are associated with higher intelligence scores, improved academic performance and long-term earnings. There is also growing evidence that breastfeeding may reduce the incidence of overweight, obesity and chronic diseases later in life. Given that SADHS 2016 estimates 68 percent of women and 31 percent of men as overweight or obese, breastfeeding interventions remain imperative.
Despite significant improvements in breastfeeding, stunting remains a major concern. Stunting refers to the impaired growth and development that children experience as the result of poor nutrition, repeated infection and inadequate psychosocial stimulation. One-third of boys and one-fourth of girls under three in South Africa are stunted.
Stunting, particularly in the first 1000 days from conception, has long-term consequences for the child. Some such consequences include poor educational outcomes, low income-generating ability, low productivity, and a high incidence of chronic illnesses. Learn more about stunting here.
It is believed that breastfeeding is a key intervention in stunting given its myriad nutritional, immunity building and psychosocial benefits. With that in mind, interventions to promote breastfeeding and support breastfeeding mothers, particularly in the workplace, are likely the simplest, most cost effective and most effective way to improve stunting scores.