World Breastfeeding Week: Giving children a solid foundation for life
Astrid, Medair Nutrition Manager, shares her thoughts on the importance of breastfeeding.
This is the first week of August — World Breastfeeding Week! Throughout this week policymakers, NGO workers, mothers, fathers – anyone, really – can shine a light on the importance of protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding. As a humanitarian aid worker and certified lactation consultant, I am excited about this opportunity to highlight the beauty and importance — but also often the struggle — of breastfeeding. Having worked in Sweden and South Sudan and now in Bangladesh, I have met many women as they give their life-giving milk to their babies. Although the settings are wildly different, the struggles and joys are surprisingly similar. Women all around the world want to see their children grow and be healthy, and they will go to great lengths to achieve that.
However the messages shared in our communities are not always in accordance with what we now know are best practices for the healthy growth and development of infants and young children. . These messages are often formed by traditions and also by a strong breastmilk-substitute industry that benefits from women not being able to breastfeed successfully. This is why breastfeeding needs protecting.
This year’s theme is “Breastfeeding – Foundation of Life”. Medair, in collaboration with World Concern, has opened two nutrition clinics in Bangladesh, and our third clinic is opening soon. At these clinics, we distribute therapeutic food to prevent severe acute malnutrition in children six months to five years of age, and to pregnant and breastfeeding women. In the clinics we talk with mothers and other caregivers about the importance of breastfeeding initiation within the first hour of birth, and continued breastfeeding up to two years of age. These two practices are, according to research, a solid foundation of life for children up to two years of age.
Supporting and promoting these practices is an essential part of a nutrition programme. The practice of optimal breastfeeding has the potential of saving 832,000 lives every year*! Breastfeeding initiation within the first hour of life gives babies that first dose of energy, and thus prevents low blood sugar, as well as the first dose of antibodies that is so needed as the newborns transition into a world full of potentially harmful organisms.
Continued breastfeeding up to at least two years of age is of importance to prevent malnutrition. Breastmilk continues to help develop the young child’s immune system and is an important part of their diet together with nutritious complementary food. Children who are suboptimally fed are much more likely to contract pneumonia and diarrhoeal diseases. These two childhood illnesses are major underlying causes of malnutrition and child mortality and optimal breastfeeding is therefore an essential part in preventing malnutrition.
In a disaster or conflict situation, women and children are especially vulnerable. There is a widespread misconception that in a crisis, women cannot produce enough breastmilk. Even if this is not generally the case, many women give some form of breastmilk substitute. But in a crisis situation, people lack access to safe water, proper cooking facilities, and clean storage opportunities. So in these setting, giving children breastmilk substitutes puts children at a higher risk in multiple ways, since they do not get the protective effects of breastmilk, and they get exposed to harmful organisms in the water used to create the substitutes.
Another complicating factor is that many women have been traumatized, which then makes it harder for them to attend to their children’s needs. That’s why we at Medair stand by these women and support them in making the healthy choice that gives their children the solid foundation for life that they deserve.
* Victora, Cesar.G. et al (2016), Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. The Lancet, Volume 387, Issue 10017, pages 475-490