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Breastfeeding, a good start in life, gets a big push in Cambodia

© UNICEF Cambodia/2012/Parks
Much Boeung is breastfed by his mother, Touch Srey Aun (centre), at a Mother Support Group in Svay Rieng, Cambodia.

By Cori Parks

Breastfeeding is the world’s most effective and least costly life-saver. It plays a critical role in reducing child mortality, protecting against infectious diseases, and preventing stunting, a form of chronic malnutrition that affects 165 million children globally. Along with providing many health benefits to the child, breastfeeding also aids in the mother’s recovery and has been shown to reduce post-partum depression and to lower the risk of ovarian and breast cancers later in life.

World Breastfeeding Week 2013 takes place 1–7 August and this year focuses on support for mothers, because more mothers breastfeed when they receive support, counselling and education in health centres and in their communities.

Children in Cambodia are reaping the benefits of a decade-long promotion of breastfeeding. As a result of a multifaceted strategy to address family and community practices, policies and the health system, the rate of exclusive breast-feeding increased from 11 per cent in 2000 to 74  per cent in 2010. An innovative and engaging media campaign, coupled with extensive health-worker training and the establishment of Mother Support Groups, has led to more healthy children and a reduction in the infant mortality rate.

SVAY RIENG, Cambodia, 1 August 2013 – Much Boeung was born four months ago in Trapaing Chhouk village in Cambodia’s Svay Rieng province, 125 km southeast of Phnom Penh. Like his 4-year-old sister, he was exclusively breastfed soon after birth. His mother, 24-year-old Touch Srey Aun, was encouraged to breastfeed by a member of the Mother Support Group network, which actively promotes exclusive breastfeeding from 0 to 6 months as part of Cambodia’s Baby-Friendly Community Initiative.

“I had no problem breastfeeding my babies. We started talking about it as soon as I found out that I was pregnant,” Ms. Aun says. “The village ‘Model Mother’ and my mother told me what to expect, so that when each of my babies was born, we got started right away.”

‘Roasting’ no longer

A decade ago in Cambodia, it was normal to practice ang pleung, or ‘roasting’, following the birth of a child. It was believed this would help the mother heal more quickly and eliminate side effects from the pregnancy.

As Sok Neang, a senior midwife at the Svay Ang Health Centre, explains, “In the first few days, mothers [were] kept warm by layering clothing and staying in a small room on a bed over hot coals.” Mothers would also consume a wine and herb concoction to help them stay warm. 

“We discourage both practices, because the hot and smoky room dampens the baby’s desire to breastfeed, and the alcohol is not good for either the mother or the baby,” Ms. Neang says. “Instead, we promote early and exclusive breastfeeding and encourage the mothers to eat more and take vitamin A and iron supplements.”

The ‘new normal’ in Cambodia is to breastfeed babies within the first hour after birth and to give them nothing but breast milk for the first six months, so that babies are not exposed to dirty water and receive the perfect balance of nutrition from breast milk. Caretakers no longer give water, and using infant formula is not common.

Assisting new mothers

Members of the Mother Support Group are a vital source of information, advice and reassurance for expecting and new mothers. Trained by health centre staff, they address issues including child survival, nutrition, childhood illness and women’s reproductive health. The network was launched by the Cambodia Ministry of Health in 2004, with assistance from UNICEF and other partners. UNICEF continues to support the network and the training of volunteers with funding from the Spanish Government through the Millennium Development Goals Joint Programme for Children, Food Security and Nutrition.

During a meeting of the Mother Support Group, in Ms. Aun’s village, Model Mother Ou Bopha recounts how she coped as a new mother before the advent of the network. “When my son, who is now 33 years old, was born in 1979, we believed that the baby should not receive breastfeeding in the first three days, thinking that the colostrum was bitter and clear and not good for the baby. Everyone thought so,” she says. “Instead, I would tip a spoon of rice water into his mouth, but he didn’t usually want it. It was so difficult. When he wouldn’t open his mouth or take it, I would pinch his leg to make him cry so I could get it in.” 

Ms. Bopha shares her experience to show how far Cambodia has come. With her training and knowledge, she teaches new mothers that the ‘clear milk’ (colostrum) is good for boosting the baby’s immune system and also good for the mother’s milk flow.

As she points to the three newest babies in the village, Bopha says, “My [son] was very sick and small [as a child] but these babies are very healthy. We want our young mothers to breastfeed their babies.”



UNICEF Photography: Committing to child survival

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