Breastfeeding: The first vaccine | Inquirer Opinion

Breastfeeding: The first vaccine

/ 05:03 AM March 04, 2023

It’s been called a child’s “first vaccine.” Breast milk, says the United Nations International Children’s Fund (Unicef), “provides every child with the best possible start in life … the best source of nutrition.”

Unicef said that breastfeeding in the first hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and giving of complimentary food at six months with continued breastfeeding up to two years old, offer a “strong line of defense” against childhood illnesses.

Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) says all over the world, 820,000 children five years and below could be saved yearly if all infants up to 23 months old are “optimally breastfed.”


That means nourishing babies primarily with breastmilk for up to two years, although complimentary solids may be given after six months or so. The Global Breastfeeding Collective—a campaign among various international agencies led by WHO and Unicef—recommends that each country should have 70 percent of its infants nurtured by breastfeeding by 2030 and the country has only seven years left to reach this target. Based on Department of Health (DOH) data, only about half of the country’s estimated 11.09 million babies were nourished by breastfeeding as of 2021.


It is hard to argue against the benefits of breastfeeding. Aside from breastmilk providing the “best food for babies,” breastfeeding also gives infants protection against infection. Studies have also shown how breastfeeding promotes intimacy between mother and child, even while it helps mothers recover faster from the physical toll of childbirth. This includes, said a DOH official, protection against developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and hypertension.

There is no discounting the fact that breastfeeding is free, compared to the costs associated with infant milk substitutes which also puts babies at risk of additional infections from unclean bottles and nipples to dirty water. Breastfeeding has also been shown not just to increase an infant’s chances of survival, it protects them from common afflictions like asthma, obesity, type 1 diabetes, ear infections, sudden death infant syndrome, and gastrointestinal infections. Breastfed children also perform better on intelligence tests and are less likely to be overweight or obese later in life.

Given all the benefits derived from breastfeeding, it seems logical for governments to promote breastfeeding and create an enabling environment to encourage mothers to continue breastfeeding and produce generations of productive and responsible citizens. Governments can do this, says Unicef and WHO, by investing in breastfeeding programs, introducing skilled breastfeeding counseling in health care facilities, promoting maternity protection in the workplace, discouraging aggressive marketing of breastmilk substitutes, and monitoring the progress of breastfeeding policies and practices.

As part of government initiatives to promote breastfeeding, “human milk banks” have been set up to provide breast milk for infants whose mothers cannot produce enough to meet their children’s nutrition needs.

Introduced here in 1996, milk banks have been organized into the Human Milk Bank Association, with 32 milk banks in various hospitals around the country. The benefits of sourcing breast milk from milk banks also come with the requirement that donated milk should be subject to screening to “ensure that our donor human milk is safe and of good quality.”

While laws have been in place since 1986, beginning with the Milk Code, violations have been committed by breastmilk substitute manufacturers, staff of public and private hospitals and clinics, and even local governments. One good initiative is the designation of spaces within offices and factories as well as in malls and other public spaces as exclusive breastfeeding areas that are private, sanitary, and equipped with necessary amenities. This is a very important program that the government and the private sector should revisit to improve its implementation so that more breastfeeding women in the workforce can access it.


As well, Philippine society needs to rethink its general attitude toward breastfeeding, regarding it as a natural and beneficial practice. It seems shocking indeed that in this day and age, many are still offended by the sight of mothers breastfeeding in public. A key factor to boost breastfeeding is for mothers to have the time, the right nutrition, and the support of family and community to be able to give this immense gift to their children.

Every child deserves the best start in life, beginning with breastfeeding in the first moments of life. But for parents to give this “gift of quality life” to a child, all of society must step in and continuously encourage and empower mothers to breastfeed. It is a shared privilege and responsibility.

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TAGS: Baby, breastfeeding, health, Milk, vaccine

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