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At a glance: Sierra Leone

Baby pageant in Sierra Leone: A new strategy to encourage breastfeeding

© UNICEF video
These mothers in Kono, Sierra Leone all won recognition for breastfeeding their babies.

By Sarah Crowe

In a developing country, a child who is breastfed is almost three times more likely to survive infancy than one who is not. World Breastfeeding Week, now under way,  is observed in over 120 countries by UNICEF and its partners to promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

KONO, Sierra Leone, 2 August 2006 – Proud mothers jealously compare their babies’ layers of firm flesh, holding them up for the midwives and chiefs like prize bulls.

It’s an unusual strategy – putting on baby shows where mothers are awarded for exclusively breastfeeding their babies for six months. But in a country with among the highest infant mortality rates in the world and the lowest rates of exclusive breastfeeding, Sierra Leone is rallying mothers to do what comes naturally, especially right after giving birth. 

‘The child must be breastfed’

Wiping sweat from her brow in the humidity of late afternoon, the district’s head midwife, Gladys Gborie, holds up a healthy winner: a breastfed baby boy bursting out of his red shorts.

“As soon as you give birth to your baby, the child must be breastfed,” Ms. Gborie exhorts the assembled mothers. “Breast milk has got medicine and lots of things inside that are very healthy for your baby and strengthen the immune system of the child. When you breastfeed your baby, he or she grows up strong and healthy. When the baby gets sick he won’t just die.”

Then the traditional chiefs take the stand, enthusiastically pointing to their chests and raving over the benefits of ‘borbi wata’ (breast milk in the Krio language).

© UNICEF video
Mothers in Sierra Leone are being encouraged to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life.

Breaking with tradition

It has been tough to crack the deeply embedded belief in Sierra Leone that breast milk is not ‘enough food’ for a baby. Here, colostrum, or first milk, is not given to the baby as it’s thought to be poisonous. And large families mean mothers frequently do not keep breastfeeding long enough, or introduce solid foods too early.

Together with the Government of Sierra Leone and other partners, UNICEF is making a major effort to change these traditions. Exclusive breastfeeding and growth monitoring – along with the use of insecticide-treated bed nets to prevent malaria and routine immunization against childhood diseases – are seen in the rise of healthy, robust babies.

Breastfeeding and good nutrition for children are central to achieving the Millennium Development Goals, particularly cutting the rate of child mortality by two-thirds and eradicating extreme poverty and hunger.

A popular strategy

The community pageants and awards have made an impact, with health surveys conducted by UNICEF Sierra Leone and the government showing an improvement of 3 per cent in the number of infants who are exclusively breastfed.

A critical element of the approach includes the involvement of traditional chiefs. After a decade of brutal war, Sierra Leonean chiefs are pulling out all the stops to boost breastfeeding and child survival, and help build a healthier generation of children.

“We have counselled them to stick to breastfeeding, which is a natural nutrient. We think this will help and we have seen results,” said Chief Steven Kamanda of Kono District. “During the war... there were no medical facilities; the doctors ran away, they all went as refugees in other countries. Now we see a very big improvement and it makes me feel great. It makes me feel a very good chief.”




1 August 2006:
UNICEF correspondent Sarah Crowe reports from the Kono District of Sierra Leone, where a baby pageant is one of many UNICEF strategies to encourage breastfeeding.
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