'BUST-ED' - Nuclear technology proves most Jamaican children are not exclusively breastfed for the first six weeks
Less than 35 per cent of mothers in the Kingston Metropolitan Area (KMA) are exclusively breastfeeding their babies in the first six weeks of their lives, despite extensive campaigns showing that this is the best for the baby.
That is one of the findings of a yearlong observation of mothers and babies in Jamaica by researchers attached to the Tropical Metabolism Research Unit (TMRU) at the University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona campus.
The study has not yet been published, but head of the TMRU, Professor Marvin Reid, has concluded, based on the findings, that "breastfeeding might not be in style" in Jamaica.
"There is a lot of misconception out there as to what breastfeeding actually means and how you feed the child," Reid told The Sunday Gleaner.
"In the Kingston region, at six weeks, roughly only a third of babies, based on our numbers, are being exclusively breastfed," added Reid.
He noted that instead of utilising traditional research methodologies, the researchers used nuclear technology to gain a deeper insight of breastfeeding practices in the society.
More than 60 mothers were given stable isotope (non-radioactive forms of atoms which are often used in nutrition research) to drink and they, and their babies, were evaluated for a year. The study was done over a three-year period and concluded in 2015.
"Because of advancement in the nuclear technology, which is the stable isotope, we can access whether you are exclusive or not and how much milk is actually being transferred to the baby," said Reid.
"We will know how much breast milk she is actually making per day, just like how you can go to the gas station and know how much gas you are putting in the car, and we know how much breast milk she actually transfers to the baby.
"We can use that technology to determine how many other sources of fluid she actually gives the baby; so whether she gives the baby the bush tea, whether she gives the baby glucose water or any other types of fluid," added Reid.
RURAL MOMS BREASTFEED MORE
He noted that: "In the past, the Ministry of Health collected data just by questionnaire, so it would ask moms, 'are you breastfeeding? Are you breastfeeding exclusively?' So the veracity of those responses depended on the person's perception of what they considered to be exclusive breastfeeding."
The women were recruited from Kingston and central Jamaica, but the researchers found that those in rural Jamaica tended to breastfeed more. He said the reasons for this were not extensively explored.
"It is not plain economics. It may be because there might be more support in the rural areas, because they tend to have extended families perhaps, and so in a supportive environment it is probably easier for the mom to breastfeed because she doesn't have to run up and down, left, right and centre to be doing all kinds of stuff," Reid surmised.
The study, which also assessed breastfed babies versus formula-fed babies for one year, concluded that breastfed babies are definitely healthier.
"Right now, our data says that they do grow a little different; meaning our breast-fed babies up to six weeks are growing different, just like the rest of the world, compared to infants who are not breastfed," he said.
"Right now, the focus has been on body composition and that is the amount of fat versus lean, but we are also assessing functional outcomes, meaning, are there blood pressures different? Are there mental development differences? Are there physical development different?" he said before adding, "The short answer is there is data to say they are different."
TMRU was originally named the Tropical Medicine Research Unit and its primary focus was assessing severe undernutrition among Jamaican children.
But the focus has now switched to obesity in children, which is a growing concern for health officials as the modern diet has made children more susceptible to chronic diseases which in the past mostly affected adults.
Reid said the unit is interested in the breastfeeding practices of mothers since breast milk has been shown to provide a protective barrier against some of these diseases.
He is concerned that a large proportion of new mothers are not breastfeeding during the first six weeks, given that it is the most likely period for women to breastfeed.
"Our previous data had shown, based on questionnaires, that breastfeeding rates fall off in Jamaica after six weeks. So most women manage to go up to six weeks clinic, and then once they reach six weeks clinic they start including other things because some of them are looking at getting back to work," said Reid.
"We are finding that the prevalence of breastfeeding is falling off and breastfeeding normally is a protective factor," he added