It's Better for Babies - Nuclear Techniques Help Guide Global Efforts to Increase Breastfeeding

Published: 11 October 2013

Scientific evidence has shown that exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a child’s life is the best and healthiest way to feed newborns. <br /><br />(Photo: Mother and child right after a feeding). Breast milk provides all the nutrients and minerals babies will need for physical and mental development.<br /><br /> (Photo:  (Centre) Mother in hospital feeding premature baby; (Left) Mother pumps milk that will be fed to her baby in hospital) Breastfed children are more resistant to disease and infection as opposed to formula-fed children. They are also less likely to develop diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer later in life. A person's nutritional status from age 0-2 years has a profound impact on health and mental acuity from childhood to adulthood, and old age. Economic growth requires well-nourished populations who can learn new skills, think critically and contribute to their communities, so states worldwide take the issue of early life nutrition, and breastfeeding in particular, very seriously. Along with dozens of countries around the world, the North African nation of Morocco has experienced a quick and significant reduction in the frequency and consistency of exclusive breastfeeding. In Morocco's case, the decline (which was first noticed in the 1980s) was attributed to the growth of the formula milk industry, the increasing number of working mothers, and poorly trained health care workers. The country's exclusive breastfeeding rate dropped from 62% in 1992, to 15% in 2006. To rectify the problem, Morocco's Health Ministry developed training courses for health professionals and awareness programmes for mothers. <br /><br />(Photo: Doctor (left) gives advice to mothers who've come to the clinic). To check whether these programmes were having the desired effect, Morocco's government, through the National Centre for Energy, Science and Nuclear Techniques, using expertise gained from the IAEA, decided to use nuclear stable isotopes to track the frequency of breastfeeding. The results were alarming. Instead of the 27% exclusive breastfeeding that was reported by the usual questionnaire survey method, and by periodically weighing babies, the use of nuclear stable isotopes showed that only 13% of newborns were actually being breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months. <br />(Photo: Baby being weighed during clinic visit) THE SCIENCE - The mother drinks water with labelled hydrogen (<sup>2</sup>H<sub>2</sub>O). Non-radioactive stable isotopes of hydrogen (<sup>2</sup>H) enter the baby via breast milk and mix with all the water in the baby’s body. Over the next two weeks scientists measure how much <sup>2</sup>H is in the child's urine or saliva. How much <sup>2</sup>H they find is directly proportionate to how much breast milk the baby has ingested. The technique also shows if the baby has ingested anything other than human milk over the test period. The IAEA encourages the use of this technique because it provides accurate information about breastfeeding patterns to public health policymakers, and thus plays an important role in improving health and well-being of vulnerable populations worldwide. The IAEA is now helping 34 Member States in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America to use nuclear techniques in the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a baby's life. <br /><br />© IAEA