© UNICEF Azerbaijan/Pirozzi/2008
‘The iron in mother’s milk is present in a way which is easy for babies to absorb,’ said Dr Akhundova, explaining that iron in supplements is less easily absorbed. As a result of UNICEF advocacy, the Cabinet of Ministers of the Government of Azerbaijan and the Ministry of Health has prioritized tackling core nutrition issues, with a focus on anaemia prevention and improving infant feeding practices. The positive outcomes that such an approach promises are already visible at Baku’s Research Institute of Gynaecology and Obstetrics. Here anaemia is decreasing rapidly, and Dr Akhundova attributes this to awareness and strict control in pregnancy.
20-year-old Khayala Habibova smiles tenderly as she returned her eight-day-old son Javidan to a nurse in the intensive care unit of the Institute. He was taken here two days after he was born because he had an infection and a high temperature. Nonetheless, Khayala comes here several times a day to breastfeed him – previously breastfeeding of babies in intensive care units was strictly forbidden in Azerbaijan hospitals. ‘I think breastfeeding is very good for infants, the main thing is that natural food is better than supplements,’ said Khayala. ‘I had some awareness about breastfeeding but the doctors here explained more about it to me,’ she continued. Making sure that as many women as possible breastfeed, even if their babies are ill or in the resuscitation unit, is a central plank of this Institute’s policy and practice on infant feeding. ‘Even after giving birth by Caesarean section, a baby is brought to the mother for breastfeeding immediately. Before we would give these women injections for the pain of the operation, but now we find that if they start breastfeeding they don’t feel pain or even that they’ve had surgery,’ said Dr Akhundova. She explained that a lot of success in breastfeeding has to do with how quickly the baby is brought to the mother after birth – if a mother is reluctant to breastfeed then the first day of the baby’s life is particularly crucial to show her that breastfeeding is possible and can be done in small amounts at regular intervals.
Attached to the Institute is a centre for antenatal training which gives guidance on breastfeeding and Dr Akhundova said that there are several such schools in Baku. Once expectant mothers arrive for their stay at the hospital they will find a room in the maternity ward dedicated to breastfeeding, full of posters, videos and leaflets answering every conceivable question on the subject. The establishment and equipment of this room was supported by UNICEF.
Doctors estimate the breastfeeding rate in the Institute at 98-99 per cent, and walking round the maternity unit one can see mother after mother breastfeeding her baby. In one room is Arifa Ismailova, 31. She already has a two-year-old daughter and has just given birth to healthy triplet boys. She is breastfeeding them all with the aid of supplements, as she does not quite have enough milk for three hungry boys! ‘Mother’s milk is a guarantee of a good immune system till the end of a baby’s life,’ she says.