It can be heartbreaking when working mothers have to wean off their babies early from breastfeeding because they have to go back to work. Nature has provided mothers with the most important source of nutrition they can provide their babies during the crucial first 1,000 days of the baby’s life.
Depriving them of this vital nutrition for nonmedical reasons is a thoughtless decision.
It’s now being increasingly recognized that nutrition plays an important role in maintaining wellness and accelerating recovery during illness from the womb to one’s last days in life. It actually starts when one is conceived, hence, the concept of optimizing nutrition in the first 1,000 days of life, which spans from conception up to a child’s second birthday.
The nutrition one gets at this time can set the trajectory for optimum health, growth, and brain development across the individual’s lifespan. This can be a major challenge in third world and developing countries, where poverty and malnutrition are the likely duo that can be a foundation-weakening bane causing premature deaths and significant morbidities.
The negative bottom line includes compromised wellness, poor health, and significant loss of brain-developmental potential.
It is estimated that 200 million children living in developing countries like the Philippines fall utterly short of their developmental potential due to malnutrition. This is further aggravated by an impoverished environment that can serve as a breeding ground for various infectious agents and other environmental hazards, as well as the detrimental effects of societal and domestic violence, which children of poor families are at higher risk of experiencing.
Looking at it from a positive perspective, the first 1,000 days may be a vital opportunity for interventions to spare these children from critical nutritional deficiencies that can have a profound global impact on physical, intellectual and emotional development.
In fact, developmental scientists like Professor S. Morris believe that interventions addressing this critical window have the potential for increasing the world’s intelligence quotient (IQ) by as much as 10 points.
It is now well established that brain growth is most rapid during the last three months of pregnancy and the first two years of life. From a bean-sized organ at five months of gestation, the brain develops to its full, bi-lobed structure at term with all the gyri (folds or ridges) and sulci (grooves) found in an adult brain.
With the amazing phenomenon of neuroplasticity, the brain cells develop further, transform and continually adapt throughout an individual’s life.
But the potential to do so may also be dependent on the extent the brain was nourished during its first 1,000 days. One cannot overemphasize enough that this time frame of 1,000 days can be the most opportune period to provide optimal nutrition to the child for maximum development.
The brain cells are also most vulnerable at this period for any nutrient deficit they experience, and this can affect brain function, which can involve one’s mental health in adulthood, long after the malnutrition was experienced.
Although the capability of the brain to undergo neuroplasticity somehow compensates for the undernutrition it may experience in the first 1,000 days, the compensatory effect is usually not enough.
After the first 1,000 days, the window of opportunity narrows as one grows older. It is definitely more beneficial on the long-term to aim for optimal nutrition in the first 1,000 days than to rely on replacement or supplemental therapy after this period.
If mothers can sustain breastfeeding for two years, this will go a long way in ensuring the child’s physical and brain health. For more than a decade now, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef (United Nations Children Fund) have been recommending that even working moms should breastfeed for at least two years.
Ideally, infants should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. Then, after six months, supplemental feeding may be given starting with small servings, and gradually increasing it as tolerated.
But breastfeeding should not be discontinued. Despite this recommendation, though, the average mother breastfeeds for only around six months.
Four out of five mothers breastfeed after delivery, but only a small percentage sustain it beyond one year. Most business offices allow working mothers to have “pumping breaks” so they can pump their breast and save the milk while at work.
But for those who are not strongly motivated to continue breastfeeding their babies, they find it a hassle to pump their breast periodically while at work.
Continuing breastfeeding for at least two years is a mother’s best bet to ensure the long-term health of her babies.