At a glance: Niger

Real lives

Starting new traditions in infant nutrition

© UNICEF Niger / 2002
Hamsou Oumarou, 26, gave birth to her fifth child at home. Afterward, her neighbours arranged transportation to the Baby-Friendly Hospital for mother and baby.

NIAMEY, 1 ugust 2003 -- Babies are getting a healthier start in life at the 17 Portes Maternity Hospital in Maradi, Niger's third largest city located in the country's south. "Thirty minutes after delivery," says Bintou Dembo. "Mothers begin breastfeeding their newborns."

Mrs. Dembo is the Head Obstetrical Nurse in this clinic where 500 to 600 babies are born each month. 17 Portes Maternity Hospital is one of 20 medical facilities in Niger to receive the Baby-Friendly Hospital designation.

In 1991, UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) launched the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative in an effort to encourage maternity clinics and hospitals to support breastfeeding. In areas where hospitals have achieved baby-friendly status, more mothers are breastfeeding their infants and child health is improving as a result.

"Traditionally, the Hausa people have taught that colostrum is bad," explains Mrs. Dembo. Colostrum is the first milk secreted by a woman's mammary glands immediately after she gives birth. It contains large quantities of antibodies, which help the baby fight illness.

"Because Hausa women believe this milk is bad, they throw it away," Mrs. Dembo continues. "In its place, newborns are given goat's milk. They only begin drinking the mother's milk on the third day after birth.

"I've always breastfed my children exclusively while they are little, usually, I don't wean them till they're two years old. All of them are living." A significant accomplishment for a mother in Niger, where the under-five mortality rate is the second highest in the world.

"We teach mothers that their first milk is the best milk," continues Mrs. Dembo. "We also encourage them to give their babies only breast milk for the first six months. Hausa women tend to give their babies water, tea and other beverages thinking these fluids are good for them, especially in Niger's heat. But in reality, these other liquids fill the babies' stomachs and make them want to breastfeed less. As a result, babies don't receive the nourishment they need."

Mothers in Maradi hear the message

Thanks to the efforts of Mrs. Dembo and others, the message of exclusive breastfeeding is getting out to Maradi's mothers. "My neighbours told me about the importance of feeding my baby only breast milk until he's six months old," says Hadjia Sahia Ousmane, 28. Though she never attended a modern school, Mrs. Ousmane studied in a Koranic school from the time she was a small child until she got married, becoming her husband's third wife. Mrs. Ousmane was married for 12 years before giving birth for the first time.

"For a year, I underwent treatment for sterility using traditional medicine," adds Mrs. Ousmane. "Then a medical doctor treated me, prescribing several medications."

Three years ago, Mrs. Ousmane saved up enough money from her business to purchase an airplane ticket to Mecca. As a Muslim, she wanted to fulfil her religious duty by making this pilgrimage. While on the trip, she prayed for a child.

After waiting so many years for her first child, Mrs. Ousmane made certain to have regular, prenatal examinations. Her son's delivery was without complications. Now she wants to give her son every advantage as he starts out in life, including her commitment to breastfeed him exclusively until he is six months old.

"I learned about exclusive breastfeeding in school," says Halima Mamane Sanni, 21. She completed sixth grade in modern school, where one of the subjects she studied was proper care of children. Mrs. Sanni gently holds her second child, a girl clad in pink. Her first child, a boy, is two-and-a-half-years old. Mrs. Sanni had six prenatal examinations during this pregnancy and an uneventful delivery.

Mothers in Maradi are hearing the message of exclusive breastfeeding and putting it into practice. They are leaving behind the old Hausa tradition of throwing away the mothers' first milk. In its place, they are starting a new tradition of exclusive breastfeeding during the first six months of their babies' lives, and they are seeing improvements in their children's health.



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