The Indian Express: The power of celebrity advocacy to build a breastfeeding-friendly India

Co-authored by Vitamin Angels India Vice President for Nutrition, Ruchika Chugh Sachdeva

Over the last one year, we have seen the world change before our eyes. The COVID-19 pandemic has taught us a lot, but here’s what stood out for us: immunity is the best medicine.

Interestingly, we also found the role of celebrities very prominent in raising awareness about the virus. Celebrities took to social media to talk about social distancing, hand washing, wearing a mask and even shared their personal experiences.

It got us thinking of the role celebrities can play in other issues of public health, specifically for promoting breastfeeding.

But why does breastfeeding need such a large-scale, aspirational movement led by personal stories of people we look up to?

The breastfeeding miracle

Breast milk is the best food for a baby. The World Health Organization (WHO) says babies should be given breast milk within the first hour of birth, for the first six months, thereafter, for at least two years with other solid foods. The many benefits of breastfeeding are high immunity, improved IQ, better growth in terms of height and weight, lesser chances of catching diseases like diarrhoea, pneumonia. Breastfeeding is also pertinent in building a bond between the mother and baby, often known as responsive caregiving which also improves the ability to learn and work.

Breast milk’s immunity-building capabilities have become even more valuable in the times we live today.

Breastfeeding is even more critical for India’s babies

Low and middle-income countries can benefit a lot more from breastfeeding. Estimates suggest that 4.5 crore babies in India do not reach their physical and cognitive milestones. In countries like ours, a non-breastfed child’s risk of death is six times that of a breastfed child. Breastfeeding is an excellent intervention to help reduce India’s high burden of poor health. In fact, studies show if all babies in India are breastfed, it can prevent 1,60,000 under-five deaths, 3.9 million instances of diarrhoea, 3.4 million cases of pneumonia and nearly 5,000 deaths due to breast cancer in moms every year. Universalising breastfeeding will benefit 12.9 crore under-five children and will provide a solid foundation for a healthy and productive future.

If the benefits of breastfeeding are so well documented, why are only 62 per cent of babies in India exclusively breastfed for the first six months as per the latest National Family Health Survey-V?

Making breastfeeding a go-to for all mothers

There are many reasons why mothers are not breastfeeding; largely it is the lack of family support, embarrassment to breastfeed in public and lack of awareness about the importance and technique. Over the decades, efforts have been made to improve the rates of breastfeeding. The government has launched numerous programs targeted at mothers, families and healthcare workers. The most recent efforts have been ‘MAA’, a breastfeeding awareness campaign, and Jan Andolan under the Poshan Abhiyan, which also curbs the promotion of formula milk for babies.

If so much is in the works, what more can we do?

The celebrity power

India is not new to the concept of celebrity endorsements. Within the domain of public health, contributions through celebrity endorsements have been concrete. The first that comes to mind is Amitabh Bachchan as the face of the ‘polio eradication’ campaign. For breastfeeding, the Government of India got Madhuri Dixit on board as an advocate and for eating right and staying fit, Virat Kohli and Rajkummar Rao. And why not? Celebrities drive uptake. In India, a research by the Centre for Social and Behaviour Change among 20 celebrities popular in north India, showed that all of them had a positive impact on the purchase intention of the consumers.

With respect to celebrity advocacy for breastfeeding in India, what remains missing is the celebrities’ individual capacity to make a noise about the benefits of this practice. For example, footballers in Brazil have been spreading the benefits of breast milk for years, as a part of celebrity endorsement where infant mortality rate is in single digit. In India, these ads appear very ‘made up’.

But there are examples of celebrities who have gone the extra mile. Neha Dhupia, soon after her daughter’s birth, launched a campaign to make breastfeeding in public a safe, common and non-judgmental practice. It gained traction as other celebrities joined in. But it was temporary and short-lived. The conversations around breastfeeding cannot be restricted to one celebrity mother for a short period of time. It has to be a movement.

Importantly, while other public health issues are extremely black and white, advocating for breastfeeding requires additional care. For example, we recently saw a heart-warming photo of Hardik Pandya bottle-feeding his newborn baby. While it was a great example of sharing parental responsibilities, the photo could send the wrong message – that bottle feeding is the way to go. Even in Hindi soap operas (popular across masses), it is very common to see bottle-feeding, which reinforces the norm.

What celebrities endorse leaves a lasting impression among people. It has to be done with care and responsibility.

Our clarion call to the stars

What we ask today is for celebrities to come forward united to the cause of breastfeeding and amplify it in a way that reaches one and all. Soon, prominent faces, the likes of Anushka Sharma and Kareena Kapoor Khan will have joyous additions to their families. If they along with their husbands share their experiences, real and raw, it would inspire a lot of parents to take the step towards the first best food for the baby — breast milk.

(Sachdeva is a public health professional in the field of reproductive, maternal, child health and nutrition)

(Bhatia is an independent communications consultant. With a career spanning nearly a decade, she has worked with well-known international and national organizations)

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