In Guinea-Bissau, exclusive breastfeeding protects the lives of infants and mothers

Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is the single most effective intervention for preventing child mortality, especially in countries like Guinea-Bissau

By Wilson Miguel da Gama
A woman breastfeeds her child, Guinea-Bissau
UNICEF Guinea-Bissau\2015\Amorim
02 August 2016

Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is the single most effective intervention for preventing child mortality, especially in countries like Guinea-Bissau. In the remote village of Bianga, mothers gather once a month in community bungalows to learn about breastfeeding and optimal nutrition for their children. Naniza Mantega Mendas is already seeing the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding in her three young sons, who are all healthy and thriving.

BIANGA, Guinea-Bissau, 2 August 2016 – The village of Bianga is located in Guinea-Bissau’s Cacheu Region, near the Cacheu river that feeds into the Atlantic Ocean. It is nearly 100 km from the capital, Bissau, and accessed by a bumpy dirt road that disappears under the dense canopy of cashew and palm trees. The only sound to be heard is the call of birds and the drone of cicadas in the afternoon heat. Bianga is home to 613 people, 80 of whom are children under five years old.

Naniza Mantega Mendas, 28, is the mother of three precocious boys: 3-month-old Pedrozinho, 4-year-old Pedrinho, and 5-year-old Rubem. 

“I exclusively breastfed both Pedrinho and Rubem for six months and will do the same for Pedrozinho,” Naniza says proudly. Naniza is giving her children the best start in life. 

Under its breastfeeding advocacy programme, UNICEF aims to promote and protect breastfeeding. Because breastmilk contains all the nutrients a baby requires during the first six months of life, no other foods or liquids are needed during this time. Additionally, exclusive breastfeeding is the single most effective intervention for preventing child mortality, especially in countries like Guinea-Bissau, where 1 out of every 10 children die before their fifth birthday. 

Not only does breastfeeding protect against illness and promote the recovery of children when ill, children that are breastfed have better physical and cognitive development than children that are not breastfed, which means that they will be better prepared to attend school and to participate in community life. 

For mothers, the benefits from breastfeeding include a reduced of risk of postpartum hemorrhage – a leading cause of maternal mortality, and particularly significant in Guinea-Bissau, as 549 in every 100,000 pregnancies end in maternal death. Breastfeeding also aids in increasing birth spacing, while reducing the risk of diabetes and breast cancer. As a result, the benefits of breastfeeding extend beyond just the child and mother to the community and nation.

Community nutrition bungalows

Naniza raises her children with the help of her mother-in-law. Her husband is a nomad, an ethnic characteristic of his family, and is currently in Angola. Together with other women in the community, she participates in the community nutrition sessions implemented by the NGO CARITAS, with support from UNICEF. These sessions promote optimal infant and young child feeding, as well as maternal health and nutrition. 

Once a month, the mothers of under-five children gather together at the project-supported nutrition bungalows to participate in interactive information sessions on preventing malnutrition. Here, the mothers can also have their children measured and weighed, and assess whether their child’s growth meets set developmental milestones. 

“We take advantage of the monthly community gatherings to bring women together and teach them how best to utilize local products such as manioc, yam, peanuts, and other vegetables to make a nutritious and tasty complementary food for their children, as well as to talk about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding, complementary feeding, water, hygiene, sanitation and HIV prevention,” said Sister Solange from CARITAS.

Naniza’s children are an example of the benefits of the nutrition activities. “My two older boys were exclusively breastfed up to six months, but I continued to breastfeed them until they were one year old. They have never had any serious health problems,” said Naniza. “Pedrozinho, the baby, will follow in his brother’s footsteps. At three months, he is exclusively breastfed and is extremely healthy, smart, and hungry for my milk,” she added. 

“The project has taught me how to take better care of my house and prepare more nutritious meals for my children and myself.” 

UNICEF Guinea-Bissau works tirelessly in partnership with the Government, other UN Agencies, national and international NGOs, community-based organizations, and communities to provide preventive and curative services for maternal and child nutrition, so that children like Pedrozinho and his brothers have the best foundation to fully develop physically, mentally and emotionally.