Breast is best

This blog post by Jennifer Nielsen was originally published on Seed to Sight, Helen Keller International’s blog, for Breastfeeding Awareness Month.

My job as HKI’s senior program manager for nutrition and health is, in some ways, not unlike that of advertising executive. I sell a product. In my case, the product is not fancy shoes or designer jeans, but healthy nutrition practices. Getting people to change their behaviors, even when it will improve their health, is not always easy (think of all the anti-smoking campaigns you have seen and how many people still smoke).

One of HKI’s key nutrition goals is to persuade mothers to feed their infants nothing but breast milk for the first 6 months of life, or as we like to say in the trade, to “exclusively breastfeed.” There are often cultural beliefs and traditions that prevent mothers from adopting this healthy practice, and it is my job to overcome these barriers and convince new moms that breast is truly best.

 

Science clearly shows that breast milk is a miraculous food tailored by the mother’s body to meet all the nutrition needs of her baby for the first six months of life. In developing countries, where health, hygiene and sanitation systems are poor – and families are as well – the benefits from breast milk are critically important to protect the health of newborns.

Photo caption: A woman in Sierra Leone breastfeeds her child. ©Olivier Asselin/Sabin Vaccine Institute

One of the most common misconceptions I hear over and over again from new mothers is that they don’t think they have a healthy enough diet to produce nourishing breast milk. While it’s true mothers living in poverty often do not have access to diets rich in essential vitamins and minerals, nor sufficient calories to keep them fit and strong, unless women are severely undernourished, their bodies have a remarkable ability to conserve resources and produce milk with all the fat, protein, calcium and energy content their babies require. Of course the better the mother’s diet, the richer their breast milk becomes, so we also have to “sell” fathers and grandmothers on the importance of feeding nursing mothers.

One of the most critical tricks we teach mothers is that the act of nursing itself stimulates the production of breast milk. The best way to make sure an infant is getting enough nourishment is to nurse more.

Another common misconception is that infants should be given water when they are thirsty. This is not only unnecessary, but can be downright dangerous in areas where water is often contaminated. The truth is that breast milk contains considerable amounts of water and thoroughly quenches an infant’s thirst. Teaching mothers to interpret their baby’s cries as a demand to nurse rather than a plea for food or water is a critical step in promoting exclusive breastfeeding. This is especially important when an infant reaches her 3 month growth spurt and needs more breast milk to fuel that growth.

We have seen a vociferous debate in the US media recently about whether American women are being made to feel inadequate as mothers if they do not breastfeed, and how challenging it is for new mothers returning to the workplace to continue breastfeeding. Women in developing countries face similar challenges. In agrarian communities, women often return to tilling fields just a few months – or even weeks – after giving birth. Heat, rain and snakes are just some of the obstacles they must contend with if they bring their infants with them. In urban settings, women often don’t get unpaid leave or time off during work to feed their infants. Thus, HKI must also seek culturally appropriate solutions to these environmental, legal and cultural barriers so women can more easily continue to breastfeed their babies.

All moms want to do what is best for their babies. It is my job as a “nutritional advertising executive” to ensure we correct misconceptions and promote healthy behaviors so that women have the knowledge to provide their children with the best possible start to healthy and productive lives.

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