How breastfeeding helps save lives: focus on Somalia

Published: 1 August 2013 8:00 CET

By Kwame Karko, IFRC

Today sees the start of World Breastfeeding Week, a time to promote the benefits of breastfeeding for both mothers and children. Breastfeeding provides the safest and most nutritious food for infants and young children, giving them the best chance for a healthy life.

Breastfeeding provides all the nutrition, including water, that a child needs for growth and good health for the first six months of life. It helps protect children from infection and helps them recover faster from illness. Breast milk is easy for children to digest and is always the right temperature.

However, in many countries, the importance of breastfeeding is often not widely understood and poor feeding practices are common. In poor countries, infants under two months of age who are not breastfed are 25 times more likely to die of diarrhoea than infants who are exclusively breastfed. Improved breastfeeding alone can save the lives of more than 3,500 children every day – more than any other preventive intervention.

In Somalia, for example, the statistics on infant and young child feeding practices are alarming. Feeding practices relating to breastfeeding – including breastfeeding within the first hour of an infant’s life, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding for up to two years – are extremely poor at 23 per cent, 5.3 per cent and 26.8 per cent respectively (Source: National Micronutrient & Anthropometric Nutrition Survey, UNICEF 2009).

“The reasons for these poor practices are many and varied,” says Hassan Abdi Jama. “Culturally, many grandmothers and mothers believe water and sugar are a good first food for newborn babies. There are also socio-economic factors, such as food insecurity, which result in poor diets for all members of a household, but which particularly affect lactating mothers and young children.”

This means that complementary feeding practices are also often lacking, with children introduced to semi-solids, solids and animal milk either too early or too late. Mothers in Somalia also have limited access to information and it is hard to reach those who live in remote areas where there is no health facility.

To address the issue, the Somali Red Crescent Society has launched an infant and young child feeding programme (IYCF). It has increased training for midwives, nurses and traditional birth attendants, and all Red Crescent midwives and nurses are trained to counsel pregnant or lactating women. Red Crescent health workers and community-based volunteers also run group sessions to promote IYCF practices at all its clinics and in communities.

“The results are significant. In the first half of 2013, 1,583 babies were delivered in Red Crescent clinic communities in Somaliland,” says Hassan. “Of these, 680 were delivered with the assistance of skilled health workers, while the remaining were delivered at home by traditional birth attendants. Seventy-six per cent of these mothers breastfed their newborns within the first hour of delivery, a significant improvement on the national average of 23 per cent.”

The Somali Red Crescent Society is making headway in educating women about the benefits of breastfeeding – and the programme is not just targeting pregnant and lactating women, but also men, boys and girls, and government policy-makers.

The National Society is also working with a range of partners to develop a national IYCF policy and guidelines, while trying to establish coordinating mechanisms to regulate and monitor the promotion of breastmilk substitutes, as international guidelines are frequently ignored by manufacturers.

“If we continue seeing similar results, everyone will benefit,” says Hassan. “The children won’t be sick, they won’t have to visit health clinics for treatment, and their parents can look forward to them growing up as strong, healthy children.”