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Young child survival and development

UNICEF urges more support for mothers as World Breastfeeding Week begins

© UNICEF/Benin/2006/Pudlowski
A mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group in Benin. Community-based promotion efforts are one of the most effective methods of increasing exclusive breastfeeding rates.

By Elizabeth Kiem

NEW YORK, USA, 1 August 2008 – Celebrated in 120 countries around the globe, World Breastfeeding Week kicks off today with an exhortation to governments, health workers and women everywhere to give increased support to new mothers who need the space, time and encouragement to breastfeed their babies.

“Breastfeeding is a key tool in improving child survival,” said UNICEF Executive Director Ann M. Veneman. “Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life can avert up to 13 per cent of under-five deaths in developing countries.”

UNICEF supports the objective of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, the global network for breastfeeding advocacy, to “create optimal conditions for the provision of mothers support.” 

Promoting exclusivity
The most crucial network of support, says UNICEF Director of Programmes Dr. Nicholas Alipui, is the “inner circle around the mother and child, [who] have a good understanding of the benefits of breastfeeding.”

Family members, fellow mothers, and health workers can all play a role by encouraging new mothers to persevere over logistical or physical obstacles to breastfeed and to avoid ‘mixed feeding’ and dilution of breast milk with rice water, or other liquids or foods.

Failing to do so can have serious repercussions. Take the case of Dadda Mint Brahim, a 26-year-old mother in Mauritania who felt compelled to give concentrated milk to her newborn, thinking that she didn’t have enough breast milk. Reacting to the artificial substitute and deprived of his mother’s antibodies, Dadda’s baby became severely ill.

Dadda’s doctor was the first to lament the shortcomings of the health system.

“Even though breastfeeding is strongly recommended, we have neither a special unit, nor do we have a specific programme for breastfeeding in our maternity ward, which  carries out around 7,000 childbirths yearly,” he said.

Governments’ support role
On a national level, governments must enact policies “to protect maternity,” said UNICEF’s Dr. Alipui. One of the most common barriers to sustained breastfeeding is a woman’s need to return to work – often in conditions that don’t allow her to bring a child with her, or take time to breastfeed.

Dr. Alipui added that governments must also take care to promote breastfeeding above infant formula, which has been “so glamorized that people think it is preferable. The more people realize how vastly different breast milk is from infant formula or powdered milk, the more people will opt to breastfeed.”

A case in point is Indonesia, where relatively high rates of breastfeeding have been eroded by the donation of breast milk substitutes during natural disasters. Today, just 7 percent of Indonesian newborns are exclusively breastfed, down from a high of 63 per cent in 1987, according to newly available country data.

Grassroots efforts
While national policies are important to advancing awareness, local community efforts are often even more effective. Rapid and significant gains in breastfeeding have been made from Africa to South America -  and in some of the least developed and most challenged countries.

© UNICEF/ HQ96-1032/Noorani
Health workers help a woman adjust to breastfeeding her newborn infant at the ‘baby-friendly' Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital in Manila, the Philippines.

In Madagascar, one of the first countries to adopt a grassroots breastfeeding education approach, exclusive breastfeeding rose from 46 per cent to 83 per cent in targeted areas over a single year, thanks to community health initiatives.

In Benin, breastfeeding advocates have learned to deliver their message to the women of the communities rather than to the men, who typically make family decisions. Now, these support leaders know that it is the mothers and grandmothers who must be convinced of the superiority of breast milk.

With many families already facing extreme food insecurity, the economic costs of artificial foods for newborns are another good reason to step up support for exclusive breastfeeding.

Mothers taking charge

In Niger, where just 14 per cent of mothers feed their infants only breast milk, UNICEF supports over 100 mothers’ groups. Counsellors remind mothers that milk powder is expensive and encourage them to consider breastfeeding an economic contribution to their families.

In Togo, nutrition advisors emphasize that in a time of food instability, mothers will best serve their babies by attending to their own health.

“Now is the time to encourage pregnant and lactating mothers to take charge of their health, particularly in villages where the fight against poverty and malnutrition is already a pressing concern,” said UNICEF Nutrition Officer M. Vincent Maku.

World Breastfeeding Week is observed 1-7 August.




31 July 2008:
UNICEF correspondent Elizabeth Kiem reports on the role of support groups in promoting exclusive breastfeeding.
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