Over the past month I’ve been working with UNICEF Ukraine to support nutrition interventions during the emergency response. Advocating for early initiation of breastfeeding, six months exclusive breastfeeding and complementary breastfeeding for up to two years is a regular part of my job. It is driven by my medical background but also my experiences as a father of two children who enjoyed the benefits of breastfeeding.
Beyond providing technical assistance to partners in the Ministry of Health, technical institutions and local authorities, I work with partners to advocate and support breastfeeding because it gives the healthiest start in life for each child.
Time after time, I cite the facts and quote global studies to mothers and those who can play a crucial role in supporting them – their extended families:
- Breastfeeding plays a critical role in reducing preventable infant deaths.
- Breastfeeding protects against infectious diseases.
- Breastmilk provides essential nutrients.
- Breastfeeding promotes brain and cognitive development, contributing to higher IQs.
- Exclusive and extended breastfeeding has been linked to longer school attendance and higher incomes as adults.
According to country survey data from 2012, only 66 per cent of Ukrainian mothers start breastfeeding newborns within one hour of birth, even though early initiation of breastfeeding is a very important step to ensure healthy start in life. And only 20 per cent of children under six months were exclusively breastfed.
Aiming to support nutrition interventions in Eastern Ukraine, UNICEF is working with partners from the US Centers of Disease Control (CDC) and Save the Children to support ongoing data collection about infant and young child feeding.
It is very important to use different opportunities to disseminate the message to Health professionals, media, outreach activities, volunteers, families, religious leaders that breastfeeding is the best for children and there is no need for any additional food or water up to six months.
From my work I have seen that mothers around the world have managed to breastfeed their children in very difficult situations – during conflicts and displacement, lacking water and sanitation. In fact, exclusive breastfeeding can be a lifesaving practice during crises and emergencies, protecting babies against diseases and malnutrition. It can mean the difference between life and death.
Here in Ukraine, the conflict has had an impact on breastfeeding. Based on an assessment conducted earlier this year in three regions, exclusive breastfeeding among internally displaced children under six months is only 26 per cent. Providing water, breastmilk substitutes and early complementary foods for children under six months are common practice. Some health workers provide incorrect advice to parents about the early introduction of water, complementary food, and even breastmilk substitutes.
Several humanitarian organizations are supporting displaced people and providing family food baskets. Some also distribute food packets for children. Nevertheless, the practice of distributing infant formula to large numbers of families with young children should be discontinued immediately and urgently, as per global guidelines.
Tragically, almost half of the internally displaced mothers stopped breastfeeding their infants under six months because they perceive a drop in breastmilk due to the stress of their vulnerable situation. While the weight of their situation understandably causes tremendous worry for new mothers, stress does not have a substantial, long-term impact on breastmilk production. In fact, only the “let down” – for which mothers need to be relaxed – is affected. With caring, emotional and practical support, mothers can continue to breastfeed.
Considering this, we need to join efforts and resources to provide evidence-based information about breastfeeding to policy makers, decision makers, health workers and parents to permanently dispel myths about breastfeeding.
This situation can be improved by supporting mothers, providing counselling and education in health centres and in their communities. Research has shown that continuous support of mothers by fathers and other family members is very important to achieve exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months.
I encourage all to support breastfeeding and make sure that Ukraine’s children, and all children in displaced situations, get the best start in life.
Agron Gashi, MD, MP, is a Health and Nutrition Officer working at UNICEF Kosovo