Why Breast Is Best

In honor of Breastfeeding Awareness Month, HKI's Jennifer Nielsen talks about her work promoting exclusive breastfeeding.
Diffa Mother Breastfeeding

This post was written by Jennifer Nielsen.

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.

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.

Nursing Mother

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

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.

A group of mothers and their babies in Diffa, Niger

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Categories: Reducing Malnutrition

5 Comments

  1. Victoria luckie says...

    “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.” Whilst I agree on the whole with breast milk being better, and it is a particularly important message given the well publicized historic scandals such as Nestle in Africa and China’s milk and infant formula scandal. Not all women can produce enough breast milk, even in the developed world, and many in places in Africa don’t get adequate nutrition, and culturally it is not the husband’s role to feed the new mother. Where a mother is ill, there is a famine, or some other factor it is important not to stigmatize those mothers who cannot. Because in doing so as a respected professional you risk both breaking down relationships and the health and life of mother and child.

  2. Jennifer price says...

    Thank you for the work that you do in Niger! I was there from 2008-2011 with Samaritan’s Purse, managing nutrition therapeutic/supplemental feeding programs, food aid and a child survival program, and what you wrote about is exactly how it is! I just hope that the donor community reads this and realizes that such simple strategies (teaching about exclusive BF, sleeping under mosquito nets, washing hands, hygiene/sanitation, accessing local healthcare services, prenatal checkups) are so vital and can make a huge difference in not only the long run but in the short term as wel…. I think perhaps donors are sometimes drawn to quick solutions and think that funding educational/long term programs are not as attractive b/c it takes longer to see results… but that’s not entirely true! Our child survival program ran for 3 years, and each month we saw drastic changes in the # of malnourished children in our villages… all because of routine/biweekly nutritional screenings (measuring weight/height) and by providing consistent reinforcement teaching on key public health messages. These educational programs to me are the most beneficial in long term management of malnutrition and in improving the general health of a community.

    Teach a woman to wash hands, exclusive breastfeed and to not give water to an infant less than 6 months = thousands of lives saved. Period.

  3. Katrina Al Jorani/Diaz says...

    In New Zealand now, many hospitals are refusing to acknowledge mothers who bottle feed their infants. Food is food for a child, regardless of what form or how it is delivered, via breast or bottle.
    The nurturing comes from a mothers love and tenderness, not from a breast.

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