Stars in the Sky: Breastfeeding in Georgia
"Every baby is a star in the sky"
By John Mackedon, for UNICEF Georgia, December 2005.
Outside the maternity ward at the Orion Maternity Hospital in Tbilisi, Georgia, a man looks anxiously through a window into a small room. A giant smile washes over his face as he stares at his new son suckling his mother’s breast. The newborn child receiving all the attention is Constantine Elakhaidze, born only two days before. The room where Constantine nestles next to his mother is brightly painted with different shades of blue – the boys section of the ward – and is furnished with a few beds and cribs. Constantine and his mother, Ia, are joined by Shorena Mukhigelashvili and her newborn son Sasha – just one day older than Constantine. Soon Sasha’s father arrives outside the window and the frantic excitement that follows as the two new fathers dote over their children is in sharp contrast to the relaxed calm on this side of the glass, where the two newborn children lay and serenely take in their new surroundings in between breastfeeding.
“The benefits of breastfeeding were explained to me in this hospital,” says Ia. “Of course it is beneficial for the child, but it is also beneficial for me, mentally.”
The Orion, which according to director David Gagua is named after the constellation of the same name because every child is like a star in the sky, is one of 18 “Baby Friendly” maternity houses in Georgia. These baby-friendly maternity houses provide mothers like Ia and Shorena a place to come and receive proper treatment and education on caring for their newborn children, especially in the sphere of breastfeeding. The main push behind these baby friendly centres is to ensure that mothers and their children are together from the very beginning. The qualified staff of the hospital help mothers initiate breastfeeding within 30 minutes of birth and to show them how to breastfeed and maintain lactation.
”I was so impressed with another baby friendly hospital that I had visited that I wanted to implement the programme here,” says David Gagua.
The programme that so inspired David is an ongoing initiative implemented by UNICEF, the Ministry of Labour, Health and Social Affairs and the NGO Claritas for more than a decade, promoting breastfeeding and other healthy practices for parents and their children.
A boost for breastfeeding
“This issue of breastfeeding was an urgent problem here in Georgia,” says Medea Beleshadze, President of Claritas, “in 1993 only 20 per cent of mothers were breastfeeding from birth and only three per cent after three months.”
The problems included Soviet-style practices that separated mothers and their children at birth to prevent illness and an aggressive drive by infant formula companies to promote the process of early, even immediate weaning of a newborn.
In response to the latter, a national breastfeeding initiative policy was adopted by the Ministry of Health in 1995 and two years later the Presidential Decree No 1 on “Foundation of infants feeding controlled use” was issued. Georgia joined a worldwide movement to implement and enforce the international Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes, which bans the marketing or promotion of infant formula in hospitals. Many thousands of people have been trained on the implications of the Code and monitoring is in place to ensure that companies and individuals abide by its principles.
At the same time, people across Georgia were educated about the importance of breastfeeding. Baby friendly centres were created with a real emphasis on proper natal care. As a result of training sessions in 40 of the country's 75 maternity houses, 18 have now been classified as Baby Friendly. Here parents can get all the information and support they need on breastfeeding, from leaflets and booklets explaining its benefits to posters outlining the 10 steps for successful breastfeeding, including feeding on demand, constant contact between mother and child and no use of pacifiers or bottles.
“Sasha is my first child so I didn’t really know anything about breastfeeding,” admits Shorena Mukhigelashvili, “I received a lot of good information here and now I will continue to breastfeed as long as I am able to.”
Seeing the resultsIt is well known that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is the healthiest nutritional option for babies and that breastfeeding can continue for up to two years. Babies who are breastfed have stronger immune systems and it is estimated that over 1.5 million babies who die each year from preventable illness could be saved by breastfeeding.
Fortunately for Georgia, the breastfeeding initiative has seen some staggering results and things are changing for the better every day. Now 90% of mothers in the country are breastfeeding from birth and 35% are breastfeeding for at least six months. Four more maternity houses are expected to be declared Baby Friendly in early 2006, bringing the total to one-third of all maternity houses in Georgia.
Training sessions have moved beyond Georgia's borders and are now taking place in Azerbaijan and Bulgaria. This means that children throughout the region will now be offered the proper care Sasha and Constantine are receiving. Countless newborns and their parents will reap the mental, physical and emotional benefits of breastfeeding.
For more information:
Maya Kurtsikidze, Communication Officer, UNICEF Georgia. Tel: (+ 995 32) 23 23 88. email: firstname.lastname@example.org