No Water, Breastfeed Only

As part of the celebration of the World Breastfeeding Week, the Ministry of Health , UNICEF, Alive and Thrive along with other partners launched a public awareness initiative on the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life.

By Lalaina Fatratra Andriamasinoro & Christine Kaligirwa
UNICEF Niger/Pirozzi
07 August 2019

Breastfeeding gives all children the healthiest start in life. Breastmilk acts as a baby’s first vaccine, stimulates brain development, and protects a woman’s health. When mothers breastfeed, everyone benefits. Breastfeeding leads to lower health care costs, healthier families, and a smarter workforce. UNICEF and WHO recommend exclusive breastfeeding without any other food for the first six months of life, starting within an hour of birth.

Yet, only 23 per cent of children under six months of age are fed only breastmilk in Niger. More than 4 in 10 babies are not breastfed within the first hour of life, putting them at higher risk of death and disease and making them less likely to continue exclusive breastfeeding. Also, the practice of giving water and other liquids such as local teas (guitti, baouri…) to breastfed infants in the first months is widespread in the country. Around 56% of infants are given plain water before 6 months.

UNICEF Niger/Pirozzi
Breastfeeding is not just a one-woman job. It requires encouragement and support from family members, health care providers, employers, policymakers and others.

The Ministry of Public Health, UNICEF, Alive and Thrive  and other partners have launched a public awareness initiative on exclusive breastfeeding - no water for the first 6 months of life, that coincides with the annual World Breastfeeding Week (From 1-7 August). Press conference, public debates, promotional advertising were aired on TV and radio, and SMS messages spread through mobile technology. The goal is to ensure that every child in Niger is given this simple, essential foundation for a healthy future.

Neither water nor any other forms of liquid

In Niger, the practice of giving water and other liquids such as local teas to breastfed infants in the first months is widespread. The reasons given for water supplementation of infants vary across regions and cultures.

UNICEF Niger/Pirozzi

Giving water to young babies puts them at risk of diarrhea and malnutrition. Water may not be clean and cause the baby to have infections. Giving water may also cause the baby to drink less breastmilk or to stop breastfeeding early and therefore cause malnutrition. If mothers give water instead of breastfeeding it will also cause the mother to have less milk in the future.

“Breastmilk has everything a baby needs to quench thirst and satisfy hunger”

Breast milk is more than 80% water, especially the first milk that comes with each feed. Therefore, whenever the mother feels her baby is thirsty she can breastfeed him or her. This will satisfy the baby’s thirst, and continue to protect the baby from infections, and help the baby to continue to grow well. Babies do not need water before they are 6 months old, even in a hot climate, like in Niger.

Promoting breastfeeding in the community

Throughout Niger, health workers and midwives in rural health posts, as well as community volunteers (workers) in villages, promote, educate and counsel women and families on the benefits of breastmilk.

UNICEF Niger/Pirozzi
Women are made aware of the importance of breastfeeding, in Zengon-Bougage, a village in the center of Niger.

With UNICEF’s support, through funding from European Union, Spain, Italy, DFID and other partners the country has trained more than 16,300 community volunteers and around 7,400  active mother support groups providing community Infant and Young Children Feeding counselling and support in more than 8,000 villages. Parents and caregivers, including fathers, are taught about the best way to feed infants and young children – through educational sessions – and how to properly care for young children so that they do not become malnourished.

Niger’s children face staggering levels of stunting

Today, Niger has one of the highest rates and numbers of stunted children in the Sahel region.  More than four out of ten children under five years of age are stunted, robbing them of their full potential. Investment to date are mainly focused on treatment of acute malnutrition with demonstrated results in mortality reduction. But, a stronger focus on prevention is key to reversing malnutrition in the country.