A mother’s gift: Breastfeeding

UNICEF’s Youth Advocate for Nutrition Pallavi Karn pays homage to a friend who has fought against harmful beliefs and practices, and committed to providing good nutritional care to her children

Pallavi Karn, UNICEF Nepal Youth Advocate for Nutrition
19 May 2022

It was around five years ago that I first became acquainted with Bina Rai Shrestha. This was when I had just started my bachelor’s degree, and my friends and I had rented rooms in Bina’s home in Dharan in eastern Nepal.

Although she started out as our landlady, over time, she also became our guardian and friend. Back then, Bina had been a mother to a lovely little girl, and was also working as a primary school teacher. We would often tell her our stories, and she would share with us her own life experiences and advice as a mother and educator.

As a student of nutrition and dietetics, I found Bina to be a real inspiration from the very beginning in terms of the great health and nutritional care that she has provided to her children – her daughter is now eight, and she also has another little girl who has just turned one. My admiration has only grown over the years, and I have stayed in constant touch with her even after moving out.

 

This image shows Pallavi with Bina Rai Shrestha and her two daughters
Photo courtesy: Pallavi Karn
Pallavi (second from right) with Bina Rai Shrestha (second from left) and her two daughters outside their home in Dharan.

Bina tells me that it wasn’t easy to go against certain beliefs and practices related to feeding that were deeply embedded in our society. She recalls the birth of her first child. “Family members wanted to give the baby honey and water as per tradition,” Bina says. “I didn’t know that this wasn’t good for the baby at the time, so I allowed it, but by the time I had my second child, I was aware that a newborn is only supposed to have breastmilk, so I stopped family members from offering her honey and water.”

She was also determined to start breastfeeding immediately so that both her children could receive colostrum – a mother’s “first milk” – which is also called the baby’s first “first vaccine” because of the nutrients and antibodies it contains.

She talks about the first time she had breastfed her daughter, and experience that she says was crucial in strengthening the bond with her child.

“It’s natural for a mother to feel responsible towards their child, and love them wholly, but after breastfeeding – to hold them close to your chest, feel their breath on you, see them suckling and falling asleep… I felt the love just multiply,” she says.

For Bina, it was important to continue breastfeeding, even when her child was sick or suffering from diarrhea or some other issues – another area in which she faced criticism.  “Some of the women I knew told me I shouldn’t be doing this, that I should stop if the child was ill,” Bina says. “But I knew that mother’s milk contains infection-fighting ingredients that can help the child’s recovery, so I refused to listen to them.”

Bina says she was lucky in that she didn’t have problems breastfeeding or producing milk, which can be difficult for some mothers. She was able to exclusively breastfeed her children for the first six months of their lives, and continued breastfeeding for two years with the addition of complementary foods after six months.

Bina believes that young infants should be breastfed when they are hungry, no matter where they are. This is why she says that breastfeeding in public should be normalized, as well as creating dedicated spaces in public places where mothers can do this. She also wishes more workplaces offered maternity leave – she had to leave her job immediately following the birth of her first child, and had been forced to rebuild her career from scratch after that.

All these ways that Bina has fought against harmful beliefs and practices related to children’s nutrition despite the social pressures she has faced is a testament to her strength and resilience. And this is precisely why I’m writing this blog – to let everyone know how proud I am to have her in my life, and as a reminder to all to continue promoting breastfeeding as a life-saving measure for every child.