Tapping benefits of exclusive breastfeeding

Breast milk alone is sufficient and beneficial for a baby to survive the first 6 months of life

James Chavula
Fanny Breastfeeding her baby Chifundo
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Elephant Media
30 June 2022

When Fanny Mainala gave birth to her third child on March 29, she wasted no time in breastfeeding her.

“I first breastfed Chifundo just 30 minutes after her birth, as advised by our community health workers and nutrition promoters. Ever since she survives on breast milk alone. I breastfeed her eight to 12 times a day,” she states.

For Fanny, the first breast milk was more than just food for the newborn.

“The first milk activates a baby’s immunity to diseases and brings her closer to me as her mother. Exclusive breastfeeding gives my daughter a healthy start in life,” explains the mother, cuddling the baby on her lap.

She is one of 300 women who get nutrition pep talks from Chrissie Mahilasi, a community  volunteer. The volunteer hops house to house in her clustered neighbourhood, urging pregnant women and lactating mothers to exclusively breastfeed newborns for the first six months before introducing complementary feeding.

“When I was pregnant, the nutrition promoter visited me three times. To give the baby a healthy start, she encouraged me to always take diversified meals from six food groups while I was expecting and frequently breastfeed the child for six months,” she recalls.

Fanny looks forward to introducing Chifundo to soft porridge containing diverse foodstuffs by October.

Meanwhile, she is happy that the baby appears healthy and strong.

The mother of three states: “Chifundo’s smile personifies the power of exclusive breastfeeding, which gives children a shot at healthy lives.

“None of my children has suffered malnutrition. I don’t want Chifundo to become the first. Malnutrition reduces a baby’s chances in life because it slows the child’s physical growth, learning ability and productivity.”

Fanny never misses masanje sessions. The communal cooking demonstrations teach mothers how to prepare diversified diets from locally available foods, including complementary feeding for children at least six months old.

The efforts are part of early childhood development services rolled out by the Hunger Project with funding from KfW through UNICEF Malawi.

She owns a leafy backyard garden that gifts the family vegetables at no cost.

 “I require nutritious foods to produce enough milk for the baby. With the vegetables in my homestead and beans and pigeon peas from surrounding fields, I only use my meagre income to buy fish and meat, which is not readily available here,” she narrates.

Mahilasa is thrilled that malnutrition rates in her community is falling as parents, especially women, apply nutrition tips from her constant visits and health talks at Phalombe District Hospital.

Fanny receiving advice from a nurse and caregroup promoter Chrissie
UNICEF Malawi/2022/Elephant Media
Fanny receiving advice from a nurse and caregroup promoter Chrissie

The 35-year-old nutrition promoter works with three care groups comprising unite over 300 households with pregnant women, lactating mothers and children aged below five.

“I work for no pay, but am filled with joy because our children are getting a good beginning. During the home visits, I advise parents to exclusively feed babies for six months, and not give them any food or water. I am happy that they are seeing the benefits of these simple tips,” she says.

And Mahilasa explains why this is important in the first months of a child’s life.

“Children grow well. They steer clear of stunting and scarcely fall sick because breast milk is a natural food that meets all their nutritional needs and boosts their immunity to diseases,” she elaborates.

Fanny is one of 56 lactating mothers in Mahilasa’s area. Two children are malnourished because their parents usually leave them home when they go for piecework, she states.

 “There were dozens of malnourished children before we started advising each other as peers. Every case is one too many because malnutrition ruins the child’s health, growth, learning and chances in life. We don’t want to backslide,” she explains.

Ellen Kazembe Crusoe, the nursing officer responsible for the district’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative, says health facilities are treating fewer and fewer malnourished children.

“When I arrived in Phalombe in August 2014, malnutrition was high and not many used to talk about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeding and six food groups. The problem is declining as the volunteers and leaders at the community level are complementing our efforts to ensure every child gets a healthy start,” she explains.

The Hunger Project trained health workers across the district to promote, protect and support recommended breastfeeding.

She explains: “We are happy that women now initiate breastfeeding within the recommended period and exclusively breastfeed the child.

“This is good for early childhood development because colostrum, the first milk, is not only healthy, clean, nutritious and easy to digest but also boosts body immunity because the body doesn’t have antibodies to fight infections.”