From a wet nurse, breastfeeding and love

When her only sister died nine months after giving birth, a conflict-affected woman in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria chose to continue breastfeeding her niece, with help from a UNICEF-supported mothers’ group.

Folashade Adebayo, Communication Officer, UNICEF Nigeria
A woman breastfeeding
03 August 2022

As she breastfed quietly at the premises of the popular Yerwa Clinic in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria, nine-month-old Aisha Babagana held on to her mother with a tight grip. Every now and then, mother and daughter exchanged glances to the delight of other women at the clinic who are familiar with the duo’s touching story. And what a story it is!

Aisha was nine months old when her mother, Amina Shettima died in March 2022.  Amina had only been ill for two days. Her death devastated her immediate family, including Fati Shettima, her immediate elder sister.  Broken with sorrow, Fati however brought Aisha home to live with her. Despite being heartbroken, Fati immediately started providing motherly support for Aisha, including breastfeeding her. 

“Amina was my only sister; our parents are deceased. We were not just sisters but friends. She used to visit me at home and I also visited her. When she died, I pleaded with her husband and his family to let Aisha live with me. My sister practiced exclusive breastfeeding with Aisha and I didn’t want that to stop. I was also breastfeeding Zainab, my then 18-month-old daughter at the time. I stopped breastfeeding Zainab and focused on Aisha. I had six children but now Aisha is my seventh,’’ said Fati.

A woman breastfeeding

The 34-year-old mother of seven said counselling at a UNICEF-supported Mothers’ Support Group (MSG) exposed her to the advantages of wet nursing. Wet nursing is an old but safe practice of providing breastfeeding support to a child whose mother died or is unable to breastfeed her child for any reasons. Done appropriately, it ensures that children do not miss out on the complete nutrition benefits available in breast milk.

 Across communities and Internally displaced Persons Camp in north-east Nigeria, UNICEF with support from the Swedish International Development Corporation Agency (SIDA) and the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (UN CERF) is promoting child health and survival through clusters of Mothers’ Support Groups (MSG).

When Fati joined an MSG in 2019 in Hausari, her community in Maiduguri, little did she know that training and counselling from the group would benefit her family in many ways. Fati became a member of the group after UNICEF-supported nutrition mobilisers visited her at home while conducting active case finding for child malnutrition.

“They registered me and followed up. During meetings, we were taught appropriate food to eat during pregnancy which might not be necessarily expensive. We were also educated on personal and environmental hygiene and even wet nursing. When I brought Aisha home with me, UNICEF provided me with a mid-upper arm circumference to enable me to screen her for malnutrition. I have been breastfeeding and tracking nutrition status her since then.’’

“I knew it was possible for me to breastfeed her because we have been exposed to wet nursing at the Mothers’ Support Group. We have been told that we could breastfeed another person’s child in a situation of death or any other challenges. For me, it is the best way to honour my late sister. I am a housewife, but my husband has promised to support Aisha like his own daughter. When I look at Aisha, I see Amina, my late sister,’’ said Fatima.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), up to 800,000 lives could be saved annually through six months of exclusive breastfeeding and continued breastfeeding with appropriate complementary feeding for up to two years or longer. Through MSGs, UNICEF is ensuring that vulnerable caregivers in north-east Nigeria receive life-saving information and counselling on child nutrition, maternal health, personal and environmental hygiene and cooking demonstrations.

Though Aisha is now 13 months old, Fati has no plans to stop breastfeeding her anytime soon.

“I don’t want to wean her yet. For me, it is also a form of birth control. I will continue breastfeeding her until she is two years,’’ she said.