Breast Milk Can Be Lifesaving But We're Making the Wrong Decisions

breastfeedingI’ve just read an article that shocked me. There are babies suffering and dying because they don’t get enough to eat, yet the best nutrition for them is inches away at all times.

Nicholas Kristof of The New York Times visited the African countries of Niger, Burkina Faso, Senegal, and Mauritania, and found there were rampant misunderstandings about babies’ needs that are causing 1.4 million child deaths every year.

I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I really did naively expect that one of the silver linings of living in a third-world country would be that you’d be in better contact with nature, and therefore have a smarter attitude toward things like breastfeeding. Surprise, surprise, we’re all equally capable of making flawed decisions.


According to the article, some of the wisdom that has been passed down in rural African villages include waiting 'til the mature milk has come in to nurse a newborn (in other words, skipping the colostrum entirely), supplementing breastfeeding with well or puddle water up to five times a day, and creating a liquid by washing verses of the Koran off a board and feeding that to a baby to give him protection. (No weirder than a baptism or a briss, really, but in conjunction with everything else, perhaps not be the best idea.) These women really think they are doing the best for their babies by withholding precious early milk and giving them possibly contaminated water, and it’s costing them lives.

It’s so odd, because when my mom chose to breastfeed her first baby in 1958, she was literally called a savage. “You don’t know what’s in breast milk,” she was told. “You live in a civilized nation, where the formula has reliable ingredients, and you can be sure your baby is getting enough because you measure it yourself.” My anxious, young mom, at 21, would weigh her infant daughter before and after every feed because she worried about going against the “wisdom” of almost everyone around her. Her own mom had chosen not to breastfeed her because she had reflux, and the “wisdom” of her time said it was the mom’s milk’s fault. How do we get so much crappy wisdom?

I checked in with Emma Kwansica, a breastfeeding advocate who started a milk-sharing site called Human Milk for Human Babies that now covers 54 countries and has Facebook pages for every state and province in the US and Canada. She’s a well-educated breastfeeding advocate. Why, I asked her, did women get these kooky ideas about their breasts not being for their babies?

“Nobody’s immune to this sort of thing,” she told me. “There’s that old story about the family where they cut off the end of the roast before putting it in the pan ‘because that’s how Grandma did it,’ and it turns out Grandma only did that because she had a crappy little pan and that’s the only way she could fit the roast in. Traditions, whether they’re religious, cultural, or just superstitious, are powerful. If everyone around you believes something, it’s easy to perpetuate a myth, and even easier if you don’t have access to information and education.”

In Haiti, she says, women were told not to breastfeed after the earthquake because their sorrow would go through the milk into their babies. But I had to ask myself, when she said that: is that really so different from moms here who think life-saving vaccinations cause autism?

Education, she says, is the key to survival for millions of babies in less-developed nations. UNICEF has an enthusiastic breastfeeding initiative and some more information on this issue. It’s amazing to me that “breastfeeding saves more lives than any other preventive intervention,” but it’s more amazing that this simple, cheap action isn’t already in effect.

Are you surprised to hear third-world babies aren’t getting enough breast milk?

Image via babasteve/Flickr

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