Aug 06, 2009
Poor health of women in Niger makes them incapable of feeding their newborns. Despite attempts to create awareness on the benefits of breast milk, many mothers lacking nutrition are forced to feed their infants water.
Zinder: While health workers counsel women in Niger to feed their newborns until age six months only breast milk, to boost their babies’ immunity and avoid malnutrition, some mothers are unable to do so because of their own poor health.
This is the third article in a five-part series marking World Breastfeeding Week and the slow uptake in West Africa of this life-saving practice.
In an intensive care nutrition centre run by the NGO Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) for severely malnourished children in Zinder, the country’s second largest city 900km east of the capital, Nafissa Haboubacar leaned against a wall cradling her two-month old child. “I have no more milk,” said the mother. “I feel sick, but am not sure what I have,” she said.
Doctors in the unit explained how one of the highest priorities for babies at the centre was to increase their intake of breast milk. The attending MSF doctor, Nicolas Peyraud, said gastroenteritis diseases are a major child killer. “The mother's breast milk is a natural vaccine. But unfortunately, not all women are able to breastfeed.”
Said Haboubacar, even though she wants to feed her child, she is not sure she can. “Sometimes when I wake up, I do not have breakfast or lunch. So I am not sure from where this milk will come?”
The Ministry of Health focal point for breastfeeding, Karki Roumatou Adamou Arowa, said even a malnourished mother has a reserve of milk. “But to ensure that the quantity and quality of that milk is sufficient for her child, her health must be restored,” said Arowa.
MSF’s Peyraud said that the often dehydrated mothers are given food and liquids to increase milk production, while their babies are retrained to suck from their mother’s breasts through feeding tubes closely attached to the nipple that deliver milk formula, thereby stimulating breast milk production.
World Health Organization (WHO) recommends giving newborns only breast milk for their first months of life because of the milk’s natural antibodies and nutrients, but notes that, globally, less than 4% of infants aged six months and under are breastfed this way.
In Niger, this figure is less than 5%, the government’s Arowa said. She said that even if women are able to breastfeed exclusively, most feed their babies water in addition to breast milk. “These women do not realize 80% of breast milk is water and the other 20%, pure nutrients. But yet they say their babies need water to survive.”
Haboubacar at the intensive care centre said, the baby on her lap was her tenth child. She has lost six of the others.