A healthy, free and sustainable start in life, for every child
Breastfeeding support is critical for the benefit of babies, families and economies
Damascus, Syria, 12 August 2020- Even before I became a mother myself, I had always been an advocate of exclusive breastfeeding as the healthiest option for both mother and baby, but I cannot think of a more critical time than now to promote exclusive breastfeeding, especially in Syria.
With the recent global spread of COVID-19, a mother’s milk can provide antibodies and build the immunity of the child to protect him against diseases. On another hand, after years of conflict, displacement and depletion of financial resources, the needs of already vulnerable families across Syria are compounded by inflation and loss of purchasing power. While the prices of baby formula and cereal are on the rise, adding financial burdens on families, a mother’s breast milk is not only free but also provides the healthiest start in life for our little ones.
It was almost one year ago that, after 10 hours of labour, I got to hold my Noah for the first time. There he was, a fragile little human looking to me for food and comfort; I was everything he knew in this new world he entered.
I was exhausted and overwhelmed but all I could think of was the information my nutrition colleagues kept repeating throughout my pregnancy; early initiation of breastfeeding. I knew I had to breastfeed him within an hour of his birth to help him learn how to feed and make the process smoother for both of us. I knew that the colostrum he was getting, which is the first breastmilk, was giving him the right blend of nutrients to grow and build his immune systems with a full range of antibodies, and so, I rejected all attempts by nurses and even family members to give him formula or sugared water.
Back home, I made sure to provide myself and my baby with a comfortable and calm breastfeeding environment. I also made sure to stay hydrated, eat nutritious food and take supplements.
That is not to say that our breastfeeding journey was with no challenges; breastfeeding on demand can be taxing on a sleep-deprived mother. Noah started out with latching problems and suffered reflux and an allergy to cow milk protein usually uncommon to breastfed babies, which meant I had to cut all kinds of dairy products from my diet. I also suffered mastitis, a painful infection to the breast tissue, twice.
I must admit, there were times that I was tempted to give up and give him formula, but I kept reminding myself of the prize; he was getting all the nutrients, vitamins, minerals and water his little body needed as well as antibodies to combat diseases. Breastfeeding is also proven to reduce the risk of chronic diseases later in life such as obesity and high blood pressure, and to boost the overall emotional wellbeing and sense of security of a child. That’s not to mention the strong bond it creates between the mother and baby.
Our exclusive breastfeeding journey lasted six months, when I introduced solids but continued to compliment Noah’s diet with breastmilk. Even when I had to return to work, I made sure to pump and refrigerate milk for him to drink while I was away. I recognize the privilege I had working for an organization like UNICEF who supports working mothers and allows for time to breastfeed or pump during the workday and only wish for more working women across the world to benefit from such supportive and enabling work environments.
My experience taught me that while breastfeeding is natural, it does not come naturally to everyone; mothers need support, not only to start but to continue breastfeeding. Pre-natal and post-natal education on breastfeeding are critical and that’s where the importance of UNICEF’s Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) programme comes in. UNICEF reaches caregivers across Syria though group sessions on best child feeding practices including optimal breastfeeding recommendations as well as one-on-one breastfeeding counselling providing support, information, advice and reassurance to mothers. UNICEF-supported volunteers also go door-to-door to talk to mothers, while UNICEF also supports wide-reaching media campaigns to disseminate important information on breastfeeding.
Since the beginning of the year, and thanks to a generous contribution from the Department for International Development (DFID), the European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO), the Office of U.S Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA), and Russia, UNICEF has reached around 300,000 caregivers across Syria, the majority of whom are pregnant or lactating mothers, through the IYCF programme, empowering every mother to give her child the best possible start in life.
*Yasmine Saker is a communication officer working with UNICEF in Damascus, Syria.