By Christine Ennulat, ChildFund Staff Writer
This week, ChildFund joins organizations worldwide in celebrating World Breastfeeding Week, highlighting the benefits of breastfeeding, which could save the lives of as many as 1 million babies a year. In ChildFund’s work to ensure healthy beginnings for the youngest, breastfeeding is crucial.
Throughout the world, ChildFund-trained volunteers are working to educate families about the benefits — for both mother and child — of what the organizers of World Breastfeeding Week call “a world-class intervention.”
“Breastfeeding gives the child all the nutrients he needs,” says Saly, a community health volunteer in Senegal, to the dozen mothers seated around her on a large straw mat in a courtyard’s dappled shade. “We should consider breastfeeding even after six months, up to two years.” The women, each with a child at her breast, listen carefully. One rocks side to side. Another stares at her nursing baby, holding folds of colorful fabric away from a cheek that should be rounder than it is. Another gently jounces her little girl, who has fallen asleep and hangs limp in her arms.
Under a USAID-supported community-based health program led by ChildFund in Senegal, Saly is helping lead a nutrition and recovery workshop in her community. The participants are mothers with children under 2 whom health volunteers have identified as malnourished. Held for 10 days in a row, the workshops include growth monitoring, individual counseling and nutrition education delivered along with song and dance and a meal. “We gather the children with their mothers to teach the mothers how to help their children overcome the malnutrition,” says Saly. “When they return home, they will practice what we teach them here.” Education and support about breastfeeding is a central piece of what these activities provide the mothers who attend.
Breastfeeding is a key ingredient in preventing and treating malnutrition, but its benefits go beyond simply providing nutrients.
In many of the communities where ChildFund works, it is news to most mothers that breastfeeding within hours after birth confers antibodies that lay the foundation for a newborn’s immune system. “It’s like a vaccine for the child,” Saly says. Immediate breastfeeding benefits the mother as well, causing a hormonal shift that spurs her body to finish the process of childbirth and release the placenta.
And breastfeeding’s benefits are more than merely physiological. Saly explains, “There is a close relationship between the child and the mother during this time, because breastfeeding develops affection between the child and the mother, and it can help the mother to teach the child many other behaviors. Sometimes the child is making gestures and the mother is correcting. This is a kind of communication.”
A mother’s responses to her baby during feeding can dramatically boost brain development. So, it makes sense that breastfeeding is also associated with a three-point increase in children’s IQ.
Breastfeeding is indeed a world-class intervention: Exclusive breastfeeding from birth until six months is the single most effective intervention for preventing child deaths.
It’s surprising, then, that only 39 percent of women worldwide practice exclusive breastfeeding for their children’s first six months.
Why is that the case? The fact is that while breastfeeding may be natural, it’s not always easy. What does it take? Primarily, mothers need information and support to make breastfeeding happen. Families, health workers and volunteers, and communities at large, also need information so they understand both why breastfeeding is important and what their role is in supporting nursing mothers.
That’s why ChildFund would like to see breastfeeding goals become a global priority in international development. We invite you to add your voice to global discussions about breastfeeding, whether through social media, a note to your policymakers or just a conversation with a friend.
Or, the next time you see a mom snuggling her baby close in this very special, powerful way, give her a smile and a nod. She’s doing a good thing.