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Promoting and Protecting Exclusive Breastfeeding is key to lowering newborn mortality

© UNICEFKenya/2016/Oloo
Mercy Chelagat, 24, breastfeeding her 3-month-old son Kipchumba at their home in Motobo Village in Kericho County. Mercy has been exclusively breastfeeding immediately she gave birth to her first born in May 2016.

By Dan Oloo

KERICHO, Kenya, 3 August 2016 – In Motobo Village, 7 kilometres from Kericho Town, 24-year-old Mercy Chelagat is nursing her 3-month old son, Kipchumba in their cosy two-roomed house that is situated in a tea plantation in this predominantly agricultural community. As baby Kipchumba happily breastfeeds, Mercy does not take her eyes off him as she smiles broadly, clearly experiencing the joys of first-time motherhood. But her journey to exclusively breastfeed her son has not been smooth.

“I will never forget when we first came home from the hospital and I just found it difficult to balance between doing my house chores and feeding my boy,” recalls Mercy.

“I found the whole experience extremely overwhelming and struggled to adjust. I did not know how to properly breastfeed or to take care of my child. At the same time, I was feeling the pressure to go back to work to supplement my husband’s income.  In many instances I almost resorted to giving my baby porridge because I felt that I was not producing enough milk because of stress,” she says.

Mercy is among millions of mothers in Kenya who are in need of support to exclusively breastfeed their babies in the first six months of their babies’ lives. The Kenya Demographic Health Survey (KDHS) reports a significant improvement in the under-six months exclusive breastfeeding rates, from 32 per cent in 2008, to 61 per cent in 2014. This is an encouraging trend.  However, more efforts are needed to reach the remaining 39 per cent, especially those women in the most disadvantaged areas, to ensure all children get the best start to a healthy and productive life.

In recognizing the need for sustained action to protect, promote and support breastfeeding in Kenya, the Ministry of Health with support from UNICEF, organized an event to launch the 24th World Breastfeeding Week on 3 August 2016 in Nairobi.

This event brought together stakeholders from the Government, civil society, private sector, UN agencies and other development partners. World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated from 1- 7 August every year to promote breastfeeding and to improve infant nutrition around the world. Kenya joined 170 countries around the world in marking this year’s celebrations under the theme: ‘Breastfeeding, a Key to Sustainable Development’.

This breastfeeding awareness and promotion platform was launched in a colourful ceremony that was presided over by the Director of Medical Services, Dr. Jackson Kioko. In his statement, Dr. Kioko made a case for directly linking breastfeeding to Kenya’s development agenda.

He said, “In addition to preventing over 13 per cent of all under-5 mortality, breastfeeding contributes to poverty reduction and provides food security for millions of infants, particularly those in difficult situations thereby ensuring zero hunger, which is part of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).”

While highlighting its multiple benefits, Dr. Kioko singled out breastfeeding as an equalizer that gives every child a fair and best start to life. He said that in addition to current policies and laws, mothers still require considerable support to breastfeed optimally and accordingly.

“The Ministry of Health is working with the private and public sectors to provide workplace support for working mothers by creating appropriate breastfeeding spaces and flexi-time to allow them to exclusively breastfeed on return to work from maternity leave,” said Dr. Kioko.

© UNICEFKenya/2016/Gakuo
Dr. Werner Schultink, UNICEF Kenya Representative at the World Breastfeeding Week launch at the Sarova Panafric in Nairobi.

UNICEF and the World Health Organization (WHO) promote breastfeeding, especially within the first hour of life stating that 77 million newborns – or 1 in 2 – are not put to the breast within that time.

This deprives them of the essential nutrients, antibodies and skin-to-skin contact with their mother that protects them from disease and death.

The UNICEF Kenya Representative, Dr. Werner Schultink, stressed the importance of immediate initiation of breastfeeding and said, “The fact is breastmilk is so personalized for the baby and is adapted to the immediate living surroundings. The milk helps to shape the immune system of the child in relation to its local environment. No one single industrially- prepared product will ever be able to do this for a mother and for a child.”

Dr. Schultink underscored that progress in Kenya’s breastfeeding status could be undermined by the proliferation of inappropriate alternative feeding products, work commitments of mothers and the so-called modern lifestyle.

“Let us aspire to make breastfeeding a modern way of life. If we do that in the next few years, 80 to 90 per cent of mothers will breastfeed, thereby reducing malnutrition and newborn mortality rates,” he added.

Mothers like Mercy who have struggled with breastfeeding are now benefitting from the support provided by trained Community Health Volunteers (CHVs). These CHVs are part of the baby-friendly community initiative supported by UNICEF.

Soon after discharge from hospital, the mothers are taught how to breastfeed appropriately and are sensitized on good infant feeding practices. Mercy is very grateful for the support and encouragement that she receives from her CHV.

“My life has changed drastically, I am now very comfortable breastfeeding and even my husband is seeing the benefits as our boy rarely falls sick. I am determined to stay the course and breastfeed even beyond six months”, said a cheerful Mercy.

UNICEF continues to work with the Kenya Government to enable all women and children get equitable access to high-impact quality nutrition interventions especially among high burden counties and vulnerable urban populations and in times of emergencies.



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