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At a glance: Haiti

‘Baby tents’ offer quake-affected Haitian mothers a safe place to breastfeed

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0181/Noorani
In a ‘baby tent’ at Champs de Mars Plaza in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, nurse Tessia Emmaculee shows a mother how best to breastfeed her four-month-old daughter.

By Thomas Nybo

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti, 18 February 2010 – Amidst the collapsed buildings and temporary camps of this battered city stand 12 special tents dedicated to providing mothers and their infant children a safe and calm place to breastfeed.

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The 'baby tents' are run by the non-governmental organization Action Against Hunger, with support from UNICEF.

Anastasia Saint Joseph, 19, gave birth 12 days after the 12 January earthquake. Her home in Port-au-Prince was destroyed and she's now living under a plastic sheet with a dozen family members, in one of the city's many temporary housing camps. She's been coming to the baby tent for the past three days.

"I came here because they offered me nutritional advice for my two children," said Anastasia. "I didn't breastfeed my first child, so they taught me how to do it for my second. They taught me that if I breastfeed my baby girl exclusively for the first six months, it will help her stay healthy."

Action Against Hunger estimates that hundreds of lactating mothers such as Anastasia are using the baby tents. Workers are spreading word of the service throughout nearby camps for the displaced.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2010-0188/Noorani
A mother feeds her five-month-old daughter a cup of ready-to-use infant formula in a baby-friendly tent set up at Champs de Mars Plaza in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.

Myths about breastfeeding

Many Haitian mothers stopped breastfeeding as a result of myths that arose after the quake, including that stress makes a mother's milk dry up. Another myth is that if a mother is not eating properly, her milk is not good.

These misconceptions triggered a massive influx of donated powdered infant formula, which has created a dangerous situation. Because many Haitians lack safe water, they're tempted to mix the formula with dirty water, which can leave their infants with life-threatening diarrhoea.

UNICEF nutritionist Ali Maclaine noted that donors need to be aware of the consequences before sending powdered infant formula."You think you're saving babies, but you are actually risking their health and lives," she said.

In the cases of young children who've lost their mothers to the earthquake, UNICEF and Action Against Hunger are providing ready-to-use infant formula. Because there's no mixing involved, there's no risk of getting diarrhoea from contaminated water. However, the formula must be administered under controlled conditions to avoid other contaminants and to preserve its freshness.

As more women like Anastasia discover the baby tents, UNICEF and Action Against Hunger are hoping to expand the programme.

Helping the most vulnerable

"There is a huge need of this kind of tent everywhere in Port-au-Prince, because there are a lot of children in Haiti," said Action Against Hunger staff member Lucile Grosjean. "And with the earthquake, a lot of mothers stopped breastfeeding, so it's really important for the well-being of the children to have this tent – and also the psycho-social support is really important."

As in any emergency, infants and young children are the most vulnerable survivors of the disaster in Haiti. Breastfeeding is an affordable and vital way to help keep them alive and healthy.




16 February 2010: UNICEF correspondent Thomas Nybo reports on UNICEF’s efforts to encourage breastfeeding by quake-affected Haitian mothers of infants and young children.
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