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World Breastfeeding Week 2017: Understanding Breastfeeding Patterns Through Nuclear Science

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The World Breastfeeding Week starts today, under the theme “Sustaining Breastfeeding Together”. This is the occasion to remind that a stable isotope technique provides us with a unique opportunity to assess breastfeeding practices objectively.

A non-radioactive stable isotope technique, known as deuterium oxide dose-to-mother technique[1], offers a way to obtain accurate and objective information on breastfeeding practices, in particular on the intensity of breastfeeding. This isotope technique, which the IAEA helps Member States master, can help determine if a baby is breastfed exclusively, according to these international guidelines, as well as tell how much human milk is consumed by breastfed infants. The method is already being successfully applied with IAEA assistance in almost 30 countries in Africa, Asia and the Pacific and Latin America and the Caribbean, to objectively monitor and assess the impact of breastfeeding promotion programmes for improving the health of mothers and their babies.

Sri Lanka, Cameroon, Kenya, Morocco, South Africa and Guatemala: in the context of Technical Cooperation and Coordinated Research Projects, researchers in these countries used the dose-to-mother technique to assess exclusive breastfeeding rates compared with maternal recall (based on listing of liquid and food items (normally 11–12 items) and asking the mother whether the infant received any of these since birth or in the 24 h preceding the survey). The studies revealed that compared with the objective deuterium dilution method, mothers’ own recall of Exclusive Breastfeeding (EBF) is biased, tending to overestimate by about 40 % at 3–6 months of age.

South Africa: researchers using the dose-to-mother technique demonstrated that infants who were exclusively breastfed for 6 months had a significantly higher per cent fat free mass (FFM) at 12 months compared with infants who were not exclusively breastfed for 6 months. Healthy growth is associated with more accrual of FFM and disproportionate body fat accumulation in childhood may pose potential risk for overweight and obesity and diet-related non-communicable diseases later in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

Kenya and South Africa: researchers in both countries found that maternal HIV-status doesn’t affect the amount of breast milk a child consumes; in fact, results of the dose-to-mother technique showed that HIV-infected mothers are practicing more exclusive breastfeeding. Both studies recommended standard pre- and post-natal counselling of both HIV-infected and HIV-uninfected mothers on breastfeeding practices.

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[1]Using Isotopic Techniques to Accurately Assess Exclusive Breastfeeding

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