New WHO Tools to Support Health-care Workers Promoting Breastfeeding in Europe

During this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, WHO launched 3 new tools that will make it easier for health-care providers to support and promote breastfeeding to become a regular and popular practice. The publications will be especially useful for the WHO European Region, which is the WHO region with the lowest levels of exclusive breastfeeding.

Breastfeeding is the healthiest way to feed a child. WHO recommends that babies be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life and that breastfeeding continue, alongside the introduction of complementary foods, for up to 2 years and beyond. Breastfeeding not only ensures the best conditions for growth and development, but also lowers children’s risks of noncommunicable diseases in later years.

A challenge for Europe

Health-care workers play a key role in protecting, supporting and promoting breastfeeding globally, but for the European Region this is an especially important challenge.

“Breastfeeding practices in the majority of European Region Member States fall short of WHO recommendations. Babies who have never or only infrequently been breastfed have an increased risk of becoming obese, and this is a serious risk factor for the development of noncommunicable diseases later in life,” said Dr João Breda, Head of the WHO European Office for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases, who also led the WHO Childhood Obesity Surveillance Initiative (COSI).

“To break this trend, we need health workers to become fully aware of these issues and openly promote breastfeeding as a modern practice that will be beneficial for individual families, as well as for health systems in general.”

Making breastfeeding easy and accessible

The first tool of the new WHO publications package is dedicated to those children for whom access to human milk is literally vital. The guidance “Protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding: the baby-friendly hospital initiative for small, sick and preterm newborns” aims to establish a system of care that emphasizes the provision of human milk to small, sick and/or premature infants, especially those who are initially unable to feed directly at the breast.

All inpatient newborns, except those with rare metabolic diseases, will benefit from breastfeeding and human milk. For many, it will mean their survival. Historically, neonatal wards have presented obstacles to successful breastfeeding, but a supportive environment can increase access to human milk and exclusive breastfeeding.

The guidance addresses the application of the WHO Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) principles for small, sick and premature newborns and their mothers, and describes the implementation of the WHO-recommended Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding for the care of these newborns while giving additional clinical guidance as needed.

The second WHO tool now available online is the “Competency verification toolkit: Ensuring competency of direct care providers to implement the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative”. It will help countries, health-care systems and individual facilities to assess staff competency to support breastfeeding and give high-quality consultations to pregnant women and mothers. It presents performance indicators that enable the identification of correct and incorrect responses/behaviours among maternal unit staff, and the provision of proper educational resources.

The third tool in the World Breastfeeding Week package is the “BFHI training course for maternity staff”, an updated comprehensive training course in line with the BFHI. It provides an opportunity for all health workers who care for women and children to develop skills and knowledge for breastfeeding. It is built upon the revised 2018 Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding and can be used for pre-service education of health workers.

The newly published WHO tools can help to create health-care systems that make breastfeeding an easy and accessible option for mothers and their babies in the European Region and beyond. While taking part in the WHO-backed initiatives, health workers can create conditions and provide services that will lead to better attitudes towards pregnant women, engage mothers in decision-making during pregnancy and birth, and improve children’s health for a brighter future.

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