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Despite the numerous benefits of breastfeeding, only 34 percent of mothers in the Philippines exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months, according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

The Philippines ranks lower than most developing countries where 36 percent of babies are exclusively breastfed by their mothers, according to the UNICEF, which raised this plea in time for World Breastfeeding Week. The lack of a strong “enabling environment” that supports breastfeeding mothers is seen as the biggest challenge in encouraging Filipino mothers to practice breastfeeding.

“We need to do more to reach women with a simple, powerful message: Breastfeeding can save your baby’s life. No other preventive intervention is more cost effective in reducing the number of children who die before reaching their fifth birthdays,” said Anthony Lake, UNICEF executive director.

Breastfeeding can reduce by 13 percent the risk of deaths of children under five years old, if infants were exclusively breastfed for the first six months and fed with complementary food up to two years, according to Lake.

Breastfeeding helps prevent “stunting” or low height for an age, a condition that can cause irreversible physical and cognitive damage, and which is viewed as a key indicator reflecting inequities in society. “Breastfed is best fed, whether the baby is born in Uganda or England, the Philippines or Canada,” said Lake.

To encourage more Filipino mothers to breastfeed their babies, everyone in the family should be involved, said Vanessa Tobin, UNICEF Philippines country representative. “Not just mothers, but fathers, in-laws, teachers and business leaders all have a role to play in supporting a breastfeeding culture in the Philippines. In doing so, they are giving infants and young children the best possible chances of a healthy, secure start in life,” Tobin said.

Tobin also urged community health networks to support mothers to start breastfeeding and offer guidance and clarification on how to sustain exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months.