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UNICEF teaches importance of exclusive breastfeeding in Afghanistan

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Walther
A baby girl born on 1 August, the first day of the World Breastfeeding Week, in Malali Hospital, Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan.

By Cornelia Walther

KABUL, Afghanistan, 3 August 2009 – “I do not have enough milk to feed my baby,” Arzo, 20, replies when asked if she will continue to exclusively breastfeed her newborn child.

“The nurses tell us that we have to give only our own milk to the newborn,” she says. “During the first 24 hours, when we stay after birth at the hospital, we are being taught how to hold our baby and what to eat. But what can I do if I do not have enough milk to give?”

Like many Afghan women, Arzo is hesitant about breastfeeding her infant. World Breastfeeding Week, which began on 1 August, aims to dispel the myths that prevent women from giving their children the best start in life.

Support for mothers

Much has been done in the past few years to strengthen institutional support for Afghan women who want to exclusively breastfeed their children for the first year of life. Although hospitals are not – and should not be – the only places where mothers receive such support, they can provide a unique and critical link before and after delivery.

In 2007, UNICEF Afghanistan launched a pilot programme to promote child and maternal survival, for which exclusive breastfeeding is a critical factor.

The programme encourages families to create a supportive environment for mothers of young children to breastfeed as often as necessary – and to ensure that they get enough food and rest. It also helps communities to analyze traditional barriers that must be overcome in order to ensure that mothers can practice exclusive breastfeeding.

‘Baby-friendly’ hospitals
Another approach with similar aims is the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI), a global programme sponsored by UNICEF and the World Health Organization, which encourages and recognizes hospitals and birthing centres that offer optimal support for lactation.

BFHI helps hospitals to provide breastfeeding mothers with the information, confidence and skills needed to successfully nourish their babies. Today, at more than 14,000 baby-friendly hospitals worldwide, mothers and newborns are kept close together, and breastfeeding is initiated immediately after birth.

© UNICEF Afghanistan/2009/Walther
A nurse with Arzo's newborn baby in Malali Hospital, Kabul, where mothers are encouraged to practice exclusive breastfeeding for their babies’ first year.

Four of these facilities are operating in Kabul, Jalabad and Herat, Afghanistan; four more will be set up in the country this year.

Breastfed for a year
Arzo has given birth in Kabul’s Malali Hospital, one of the baby-friendly hospitals. For the time being, the young mother is exclusively breastfeeding, but her mother-in-law, Fatime, has already bought the powdered milk that will replace the mother’s milk once she returns home.

“She is too feeble to feed her daughter. How can she take care of her family if all her energy goes into breastfeeding?” asks Fatime.

The situation is different for another Afghan mother, Hafiza, 25. “This is my second son, and like the previous one, my boy will be fed only with breast milk during his first year. My mother had six children. We all have been breastfed,” she says.

“There is no place to buy powder milk in our village. And if there was one, it would be far too expensive,” Hafiza adds with a smile.



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