During the first six months of a child’s life, breast milk alone is the ideal food. It contains all the nutrients and water needed for healthy growth. It also provides good protection against many common infections.

Breast milk continues to be an important source of nutrients until a child is at least two years old. However, after six months of age, all babies need increasing amounts of additional foods, called complementary foods, before eventually changing to family foods alone. Without a good mixture of these additional foods, babies will fail to grow properly.

Mothers with HIV have a difficult choice, as the HIV virus can be passed on to the baby by breast-feeding. However, if the baby is fed only breast milk for six months with no other liquid or food at all, and the mother then stops breast-feeding as quickly as possible, the risk is small. On average, one in every 20 babies may become infected. Research suggests that for every child dying from HIV through breast-feeding, many more die because they are not breast-fed. If babies are bottle-fed in poor conditions where it is difficult to sterilise bottles and water, they are many times more likely than breast-fed babies to die from diarrhoea, pneumonia or other causes.

Discussion

  • People often believe that bottle-feeding is the best way to feed a baby. Is this belief common in our area? Why?
  • What can we do to tell people that breast-feeding is safer, healthier, free and much better for all babies (unless the mother is HIV positive and can provide a safe, clean alternative source of milk)?
  • How much do people know about the risks of passing on HIV through breast-feeding? Are the figures (given below) a surprise? What do you think the best choice would be for women who are HIV positive in our area?
  • When do people in our area traditionally start giving food to babies? Can we encourage them to begin at around six months? Do people help babies to gradually get used to eating complementary foods?

Breast-feeding and HIV 

The longer breast-feeding continues, the greater is the risk of HIV infected mothers passing on the HIV virus to their babies. 

  • One in every 20 babies will become infected if breast-fed for six months 
  • Two in every 20 will become infected if breast-fed for a year 
  • Three in every 20 will become infected if breast-feeding continues for two years.