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Mauritania: promoting complementary feeding for young children

© UNICEF/WCARO/2008/Pirozzi

SAHEL: Percentage of infants 6 to 9 months who are not given complementary foods: 45%

After the harvest, the women of Sabou Allah village, 355 km southeast of Nouakchott, prepare what they call the “five measures.” Working in teams, they are preparing the five foods – maize, beans, millet, rice and peanut paste – that they have been advised to combine to make complementary food for children aged six to 24 months. Each ingredient is washed, sun-dried, cooked and ground separately. It is a laborious process and almost all the women lend a hand.

Each household brings its share of grain, except for the least well-off. As a result, infants and young children, including the poor, benefit from a nutritious complementary food, which they eat in “porridge” form. Of course, mothers are encouraged to continue breastfeeding their children until they are two years old and beyond, a widespread practice in Mauritania. Fatimatou Mint Birrou, a local woman, has eight children and five grandchildren herself. Sitting in a traditional tent and surrounded by some 20 young mothers, she says the village women were quickly won over by this new, nutrient rich “porridge.”

“Before the ‘five measures’, you could see that the children’s skin hung loosely, that they were weak,” she says. “Now you can see a clear improvement. They are healthier and livelier.” In this respect, Sabou Allah isdoing better than the rest of Mauritania since only 42% of Mauritanian children aged six to nine months are given complementary foods in addition to breast milk, according to the latest Demographic and Health Survey. In other words, more than half of them are not being adequately fed and will not grow and develop to their full potential.Community-based initiatives are helping Mauritanian villagers improve complementary feeding practices for infants and young children.The farmers of Sabou Allah, a sandy village, grow their own grain and legumes but not peanuts, which is the only crop they have to buy to prepare the “five measures.”

For their families, trouble starts in the critical lean season, a period of true hardship. “After the harvest, almost all of the mothers give their children the ‘five measures,’” Mrs. Mint Birrou says. “But the further you get from the harvest, the less usual this is. During the hunger season, only a small minority of women can give their children the ‘five measures.’” When grain supplies run dangerously low, adults tighten their belts – especially the mothers, according to Mrs. Mint Birrou. “The men are not interested in making sure their families have enough to eat,” she remarks. “They think more about their own pleasure than feeding their children. For women, giving food to their children comes first. They come next. That’s how all the women do things here.” Around her, the women who have been listening attentively nod in agreement. Once supplies for the “five measures” have run out, mothers give their children a share of the family meal. But children under the age of two are not usually fed meat or eggs, a delicacy given to adults.

As elsewhere, complementary foods play a key role when it comes to the survival, growth and development of children. Mauritanian boys and girls have the same potential for growth as children in rich countries, according to the World Health Organization’s Child Growth Standards for Infants and Young Children.

All children, wherever they are born, have the potential to grow within the same range of height and weight. Drawing on a study conducted in six countries (Brazil, the United States, Ghana, India, Norway and Oman), the World Health Organization says that the differences in growth among children under the age of five are influenced more by breastfeeding, complementary feeding, health care, and hygiene practices rather than by heredity or ethnicity.

In Mauritania, like everywhere else in the world, children must get the best start in life to reach their full nutrition, growth, and development potential.

by Michel Arseneault





Malnutrition in the Sahel


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