Every year from August 1 to 7, Malawi joins the rest of the world in commemorating the World Breastfeeding Feeding week which is aimed at encouraging mothers to continuously breastfeed their babies. Our reporter PRECIOUS KUMBANI engaged United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) Malawi representative Johannes Wedenig why this initiative is important.
Tell us more about the World Breastfeeding week?
August 1 to 7 every year is World Breastfeeding Week. It is a global initiative commemorated by 120 countries, to promote and support optimal breastfeeding for children aged 0 to 24 months. Optimal breastfeeding includes initiation of breastfeeding during the first one hour after birth, exclusive breastfeeding which means feeding the child breast milk only up to six months after the child is born and continued breastfeeding up to 24 months or beyond.
The motivation for this global initiative is that breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to provide children everywhere with the best start to life. The theme for this year’s breastfeeding week is Breastfeeding: Foundation for Life”— a recognition of the importance of breastfeeding to a baby’s future.
Give us a brief insight on why breastfeeding is important for child growth?
Breastfeeding is important because it gives children the healthiest start in life, stimulation of brain development and protects women’s health. It helps young children grow, prevents under nutrition and reduces the risk that children will become overweight. Breastfeeding acts as a baby’s first vaccine and leads to lower health care costs. Putting newborns to the breast within the first hour of life prevents newborn deaths. Breastfeeding is one of the first early childhood development interventions and helps prepare children for a prosperous future in a cost-effective way for families and society. Breastfeeding also supports healthy brain development by providing frequent close interaction and attachment between mother and infant. This kind of nurturing interaction has a two-generation effect because positive behaviours are modeled for the next generation.
What is the situation like in Malawi in terms of breastfeeding?
Currently, 76 percent of children in Malawi are put to the breast within one hour of birth and 61 percent of the children below the age of six months are exclusively breastfed. While this may appear a higher statistic compared to other countries globally, Malawi needs to step up efforts to ensure that more children are exclusively breastfed.
What are the attributing factors?
There are so many reasons why mothers may not optimally breastfeed their children including; Lack of knowledge of the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and continued breastfeeding, lack of support to breastfeed from family or community members, influence of opinion leaders like grandmothers who would promote giving babies food before they reach an appropriate age [six months], cultural beliefs around breastfeeding including that the first milk that the mother produces is bad and therefore it cannot be given to the infant, inadequate time for mothers to breastfeed due to a high workload, for instance, mothers leaving their children with other caretakers when going to the fields or any other form of work.
What are the interventions so far?
Malawi is promoting optimal breastfeeding which includes early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour after birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued breastfeeding of the child up to two years and beyond. These interventions are delivered to mothers, caregivers and families through health facilities and community volunteers [care groups and local leaders]. In addition, Malawi has put up policies which promote breastfeeding for children.
What else needs to be done?
To improve the situation, there is need for joint and collaborative effort from all sectors including the media. Fathers are particularly encouraged to support women to adopt exclusive breastfeeding and provide a conducive environment to provide and promote consumption of adequate, safe and diversified foods for the entire family and breastfeeding mothers. There is need to support working mothers to create time to breastfeed their children either at workplace or at home.
What are the dangers associated with poor breastfeeding among children?
The risk of death for children increases if they are not breastfed. If children are not exclusively breastfed they may become malnourished and malnutrition has other long-term effects such as poor performance in school, class repetition, onset of other diseases and increase in expenditure on health care.
What are the expectations during and after the week?
It is expected that every Malawian will understand the importance of breastfeeding; early initiation of breastfeeding within one hour after birth and exclusively breastfeeding the child within the first six months of life and continue up to two years or beyond. The individual mothers and families should take actions that will promote exclusive breastfeeding for a better life for their children.
The government of Malawi and its development partners such as Unicef will continue to support breastfeeding interventions at both health facility and community level. In addition, regular surveys instituted by government assist in monitoring the breastfeeding situation in the country. Unicef runs a poll on its SMS polling platform – U-Report and will continue getting opinions on this important matter through this platform.