Breastfeeding boost for moms and babies in Ukraine
Thanks to UNICEF, Yevheniya has learned how to keep her baby healthy even in the midst of violence and displacement.
Every time six-month-old Yehor is breastfed, he uses his tiny fingers to clasp his mother Yevheniya's hand. Then he smiles up at his mother.
"In my view, breast milk is not only about food for a baby, it's about outer-space communication between mom and baby," says 29-year-old Yevheniya.
Since the outbreak of war in Ukraine, breastfeeding has become an important ritual for Yevheniya’s family. Feeding is the key to survival and safety for baby Yehor, having experienced shelling and evacuation, and periods without hot water.
"During wartime, breast milk is something that makes me confident that I always have something to feed my child,” says Yevheniya.
“We realised it was dangerous to stay”
Yevheniya gave birth to Yehor in february. She and her husband had spent the previous few months furnishing a house in Mariupol, buying children's clothes, and choosing a stroller and a playpen. So, when the first explosions occurred in Mariupol on February 24, Yevheniya quickly packed two bags – one for the family and another for the baby.
"We realised it was dangerous to stay in the Donetsk region and that we should leave as soon as possible,” recalls Yevheniya. “The trunk in our car is very small, so we could only take the most necessary stuff."
For seven hours, the family travelled by road to Dnipro, with no time for stops and rest. Yevheniya soon realised the importance of being able to breastfeed, providing her baby with food security and protection from disease even as their world fell apart.
"He was only one month old,” she says. “Only because of breastfeeding did our trip go smoothly. I can’t imagine what I would have done if I had needed to feed Yehor with infant formula. Because not only should I have had this formula with me, but also water at the appropriate temperature and the chance to sterilise bottles. It is very difficult to organise all this in the middle of a journey, especially during wartime.”
During the first months of the war, the family lived with acquaintances, enduring countless air raid sirens and even shelling. Every time the siren wailed, Yevheniya wrapped her son in a blanket and ran to the basement. There, too, breast milk saved the young mother.
"While holding him in my hands during shelling, I was always scared and thought just about what could happen to him. The only thought that made me rejoice was that I at least have an opportunity to feed him.”
“I was following recommendations”
When her breast milk supply suddenly decreased due to illness, lack of sleep, high temperature and stress, Yevheniya began reading materials on this topic from the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF).
“I was following recommendations aimed to help in such cases, such as holding the baby next to my breast and keeping hydrated,” she says. “I was also trying to stabilise my emotional state.”
Since March 2022, UNICEF has been conducting an information campaign to support breastfeeding. More than 1 million mothers have already received information about proper preparation and adjustment to breastfeeding. In a partnership with other organisations, a video course on mothers' preparation for breastfeeding was developed, which will be distributed in all Ukrainian medical facilities working with pregnant women and women in labour. On the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week 2022, which focused on ‘Step Up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support’ between August 1-7, the UNICEF office in Ukraine together with the NGO ‘Molochni Ricki’ (milky rivers) prepared a series of lectures, consultations and classes for ‘Spilno’ spots in Irpin, Lviv and Cherkasy.
Thanks to the learning materials, Yevheniya realised that she stopped eating and drinking when she worried about her loved ones back home.
"I realised that I had to pull myself together because all that my baby needed was an emotionally stable mom, attention and breast milk,” she says.
“My biggest joy today is my son”
The family now lives in an apartment in Kyiv that still bears the scars of a missile attack. Yevheniya often wakes up in the middle of the night – not only because of Yehor’s crying, but because of air raid sirens. However, she hopes for a better future for her son and is determined to provide him with safety, comfort, and healthy food.
"My biggest joy today is my son,” she says, happily. “When he smiles, when I see how he's growing up, I forget about everything, even about the war.”
According to UNICEF, humanitarian needs in Ukraine are multiplying as the violence continues. Refugees and the displaced face high levels of stress and uncertainty, food shortages, unsanitary conditions and the risk of communicable diseases. As with all emergencies, the youngest children are at the highest risk of illness and mortality.
Infants who are not breastfed are especially vulnerable in times such as these, as access to and conditions for preparing infant formula are disrupted. In Ukraine, where rates of exclusive breastfeeding are low, a high percentage of infants are already partially or fully dependent on infant formula.
UNICEF is calling to protect, promote and support the feeding and care of infants and young children, as well as their caregivers. This is critical to support maternal and child health, survival, growth and development, and to prevent malnutrition.