In Jamkhed, India, an infant gets neonatal care through the Comprehensive Rural Health Project supported by UMCOR.
By Julia Kayser Frisbie*
April 24, 2014—“If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for their first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years… 220,000 child lives would be saved every year” (World Health Organization, 2013).
UMCOR is working to help mothers and children not only survive, but thrive. Breastfeeding is a crucial part of this equation. Teaching community health workers, mothers and extended families about the benefits of breastfeeding can make a huge difference in the lives of children.
Breastfeeding within the first hour of a child’s life provides an instant boost to his or her immune system. That’s because colostrum, or the “first milk,” is high in Vitamin A and antibodies. The skin-to-skin contact that breastfeeding requires can also stabilize a baby’s temperature, respiratory rate, and blood sugar level.
Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life can keep infants healthy because breast milk is nutritious and easily digestible. It is a much safer option in the developing world than water, which is often contaminated. It also promotes healthy physical, mental and emotional development.
Breastfeeding also benefits mothers
Mothers benefit from breastfeeding, too. In the first crucial hour after birth, breastfeeding triggers a hormonal change that helps to deliver the placenta and reduces a mother’s risk of postpartum hemorrhage, the principal cause of maternal mortality. It is also part of the powerful bonding experience with her newborn.
In the long run, breastfeeding can delay a woman’s return to fertility, giving her body a chance to recover after pregnancy and childbirth, as long as she is well nourished. It also saves families money, because it eliminates the need to buy breast-milk substitutes, which are often unwittingly mixed with unsafe water. Infants who are breastfed need less medical care.
Breastfeeding is beneficial, and almost every mother has the natural ability to do it. Yet, aggressive marketing and free samples of infant formula have given families in the developing world the impression that human milk is less modern and therefore less healthy. And once an infant is started on formula, it’s very difficult to return to breastfeeding.
Countering damaging commercial pressure
UMCOR is working to combat this damaging commercial pressure. By improving access to prenatal and neonatal healthcare, we can reach mothers and their extended families with messages about breastfeeding at a crucial moment in the lives of both mother and infant.
Most breastfeeding problems occur in the first two weeks of a baby’s life. Community health workers are trained to support mothers if they have difficulty. Coaching is extremely important.
These methods are effective. For example, in Liberia, the Nehnwaa Child Survival Project has seen the rate of exclusive breastfeeding of children under 6 months rise to 52.9% over the past five years. Nehnwaa means “struggling on behalf of the children” in the local Mano language. The Ganta United Methodist Hospital collaborates with this project, which has received grants from both UMCOR and USAID.
Nehnwaa has seen a 60 percent reduction in child mortality, thanks to its community-based primary-health programs. Nehnwaa promotes exclusive breastfeeding, improves access to healthcare (including vaccines and treatment for HIV, malaria and TB), builds wells, encourages family planning, and provides bed nets. This comprehensive approach empowers mothers and protects babies. UMCOR is proud to support programs that work toward abundant health.
Help promote breastfeeding today with a donation to Mother and Child Survival, Advance #982645.
*Julia Kayser Frisbie is a writer and a regular contributor to www.umcor.org.