Breastfeeding and Our Culture

Hannah (not her real name) gave birth to her first baby, Susan at home in their two bedroom house in the village. In her culture, new born babies should never be exposed to many people for fear of losing them to people with an evil eye.

Hannah stayed indoors for five days, protecting Susan. Finally, on the fifth day, Hannah got out of the house.

A week later, Susan’s weigh remained the same, unhappy plus she had diarrhoea. Hannah and her Auntie rushed Susan to the nearest facility where she was admitted and put on drip (Glucose syrup).

I met Hannah at the health facility, deeply worried about her baby’s health. While we talked, I discovered that within the first four days, Susan was not fed on anything and she rejected the mother. On probing further, Hannah explained that in her culture, babies are not fed until they accept the name they are given. The naming ceremony is closely tied in with breastfeeding the newborn.

Susan only accepted her name on the fifth day, when she finally opened her mouth to take the fluid that was being offered by her elderly aunt. The liquid was warm boiled water and sugar solution. Hannah’s breasts pained in the first four days, she express and poured away the yellowish milk, since Susan could not have it.

The World Breast Feeding Week theme “strengthening community support for optimal breastfeeding towards a healthy, well-nourished and HIV free generation” is timely, with great opportunities for us to work as a community to help mothers like Hannah to practice her culture and also balance it with the health information at her disposal. The Ministry of Health recommends giving birth at a health facility, for mothers to receive advice and guidance on how to ensure the survival of the new born. Information about exclusive breastfeeding, timely complementary feeding and basic nutrition is shared with mothers.

Despite the effort, there are many mothers like Hannah in Uganda, who do not go to health facilities either for Anti-natal lessons or to give birth. These miss out on opportunities to learn and plan for their babies’ growth. Such mothers do not know the benefits of breastfeeding; that is why we see babies given other fluids before breast milk. This is a big contributing factor to the recurring inter-generational malnutrition problem we face as a nation.

Susan received a warm water and sugar solution; other cultures in Uganda give diluted cold fermented bushera, fermented sorghum porridge, ghee, glucose, cow’s milk, maize porridge, alcoholic drinks like kwete, while others give herbal solutions first other than breast milk. These greatly compromise the babies’ immunity. We believe we are cleansing the baby’s intestines before the breast milk is given; we un-knowingly set precedence for malnutrition right after birth.

I could not leave Hannah alone, I quickly requested for an opportunity to chat with her and the nurse on duty. We discussed how the first milk the mother produces immediately after giving birth (also called colostrum) is rich in nutrients beneficial for the baby’s immunity, body weight gain, energy and other required nutrients in the right amounts and thickness. Besides, breastfeeding helps mothers to bond with their babies and mothers quickly regain shape. We (the nurse and I) encouraged her to quickly put the baby on the breast and feed her as often as she could. The next time I heard from Hannah, Susan has recovered within four days, Hannah had learnt more from the nurse and she had bonded with Susan.

This experience has not left me seated ever since. Let us join hands and help mothers out there to better feed their babies, for strong, brighter and highly productive generations to come.

The writer is a public health nutritionist and an assistant lecturer at Makerere University School of Public Health

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