For every child, the healthiest start to life

World Breastfeeding Week 2018

Marwa Al- Bitar
A mother and her baby
UNICEF/Syria/2018/Rami Nader
07 August 2018

When I found out I was pregnant, I could not wait to apply my own expertise as a nutrition officer with UNICEF in Damascus, Syria. I had always advised health workers and mothers on children’s nutrition and on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding to boost newborn immunity. Now it was my turn to guarantee my baby boy the healthiest start to life.

From the moment I realized that I was expecting, I knew I had to make sure that my baby got all the nutrients he needed in his 1,000 days of life - the window spanning roughly from conception to a child’s second birthday: the most critical time for a child’s cognitive and physical development. I took all the recommended vitamins, folic acid and iron and started a healthy diet. The right nutrition for the mother and baby during pregnancy can have a profound impact on the child’s growth and development, and can reduce the chances of disease.

Eight months and a half later as we headed to the hospital, I kept reminding myself of the importance of early initiation of breastfeeding: putting newborns to the breast within an hour of their birth.

In the delivery room, when I first heard my baby’s voice, I forgot all the worry of the past months. Here was my new baby boy, right in my hands, a tiny and fragile human who depended on me for everything. I was emotional and started crying but I knew I had to breastfeed him as soon as possible. I firmly rejected all attempts by nurses to feed him sugared water and gave him nothing but my breastmilk. It was an amazing feeling to know that the colostrum he was getting, which is the first breastmilk, was giving him the right blend of nutrients to grow, and boost his immune system with a full range of antibodies.

Back at home, I always made sure to provide myself and my baby with a comfortable breastfeeding experience. I kept my baby on a consistent schedule, feeding him every two hours. I would go into a quiet room, put on soft music and take a relaxing posture for feeding. I also made sure I stayed hydrated and ate healthy snacks.

I must admit that as a working mother, it was challenging to reconcile between caring for my baby and returning to work after my maternity leave was over. I used to pump my breastmilk and refrigerate it, and my mother-in-law, who cared for him while I was at work, would warm it and feed him. Whenever I returned home, it was like he could not wait to see me, peeking over my mother’s arms eagerly. Every time I fed him, I’d look into his eyes and feel overwhelmed with happiness. Breastfeeding also helped me build a strong and loving relationship with my baby. During this time, it was very important to have a supportive family who helped me create a nurturing environment for breastfeeding and ensured that my baby received his breastmilk on time while I was at work.

After going through this experience, I started posting in groups for new mothers on social media to advise them to take advantage of the golden opportunity of these 1,000 days. Breastfeeding is not just about feeding a baby to survive and be healthy. It’s an experience that creates an emotionally healthy human being who will grow up to reach his full potential in life.

Now my baby is 8 months old and looks different every day – he has grown stronger and happier. He was exclusively breastfed until he was 6 months old, when I first introduced solids. I still compliment his diet with breastfeeding as much as I can. I’m grateful that I was confident of my knowledge and intuition and did not give up to hospital staff about what to feed my newborn. This only shows how important are the UNICEF-supported infant and early childhood feeding awareness sessions are, for mothers to learn about best practices in supporting their babies to survive and thrive, and for healthcare professionals to be able to advise new mothers.