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Promoting exclusive breastfeeding in Benin: a success story

Benin Pudlowski
© UNICEF/Benin/2006/Pudlowski
Creating a supportive circle around the breastfeeding mother to provide the best start for children

According to the 2006 Benin Demograhic Health Survey, more than 9 out of 10 children are breastfed. But the rate of exclusive breastfeeding is still rather low. Only 2 out of 5 children under 6 months are exclusively breastfed.

Support for mother does work
Pobé, Adja Ouèré and Kétou are three rural health districts situated 2 hours from Cotonou, the capital city of Benin.  Reports from the region’s health district show that the number of children who are exclusively breastfed has increased from 8 per cent in 2002 to 22 per cent in 2007. Such results have been possible owing to communication activities for behavior change developed by women groups who dedicate themselves to promoting breastfeeding for infants and adequate complementary feeding for young children.

It is a fact that family environment heavily affects exclusive breastfeeding in Benin. So, these women groups work to spread a better understanding of the necessity for an exclusive breasfeeding. Henriette Akouta, leader of one of the supporting groups explained that ancestral beliefs have so much rooted themselves in the people’s mind that they think “decoctions led to more robust and livelier new born”. “They also intuitively believe that yellow milk – milk with colostrums- is not a good one since milk is always white” said Ms Akouta.  In addition, they think that milk alone cannot satisfy the babies hunger and thirst. This is why they feed under 6 month babies on water and food to cover up what they believe is its nutritional needs.

Involving men in social change
In the beginning, it was men’s affairs. Health workers identified men as community relays but they could not be reliable as breastfeeding directly targets women. Many women were reluctant to adopt exclusive breastfeeding for under 6 month babies because of beliefs deeply anchored in the communities. Mothers in law, grand mothers and aunts, are usually prompt to welcome new born with songs. But they are also the warrant of very old practices. 

Thus, women were called in to mobilize their peers on the need to exclusively breastfeed under 6 month babies. They then committed themselves to smoothly ridding the community of retarding beliefs. To do this, they receive training with the financial support of UNICEF and are sent to the ground. Then they organize educative talks with small groups of 5 pregnant women, recruited after antenatal clinic. It is an opportunity to establish a participative dialog with those future mothers on the advantages of exclusive breastfeeding.

The community supports its mothers for the benefit of all
After the baby’s birth, each member of the supporting group is assigned the responsibility of assuring the weekly follow up of a group of 20 mothers. She organizes home visits over a month’s period. On the one hand, these visits serve as a practical learning opportunity for how to breastfeed the child, which position to adopt and the need to breastfeed upon request. On the other hand, she holds talks with the mother’s family environment for them to back her up.

Two years later, results are humble but encouraging with a 14 per cent increase in the rate of exclusive breastfeeding. This has been possible because of the progressive change in perception and beliefs. As Henriette Akouta put it “children exclusively breastfed are stronger and more resistant to diseases”

Story by Gisele Langue-Menye



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