Alerting the world to issues of famine and the plight of malnourished mothers is, of course, of vital importance. But what exactly should the media’s message be?
A recent appeal about breastfeeding in famine-blighted South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria had good intentions, but contained some fundamental flaws.
Baby Milk Action complained to the Disaster’s Emergency Committee (DEC) about the appeal, which had been published in the Guardian, Metro and other media on 22nd March.
“The appeal led with the message: Bisharo has no milk to feed her child – Bisharo is too malnourished to produce her own milk”, says Baby Milk Action’s Policy Director Patti Rundall. “Whether the claim about lack of milk was true in this particular instance was not really the point. The appeal fed commonly held misconceptions and myths about how breastfeeding works and what is really needed.”
The DEC acknowledged these misconceptions and published a revised version.
Unhelpful messages about breastfeeding
“Although the text is not ideal, this version is certainly much better”, says Patti. “While we applaud the UN and aid agencies for drawing attention to the crisis unfolding in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria, we to the media and all involved to ensure that messages about infant and young child feeding are correct.
“This appeal sends a very unhelpful message about breastfeeding. Whether the claim about lack of milk is true in this particular instance is not really the point. The whole appeal feeds commonly held misconceptions about how breastfeeding works and what is really needed.
“UN and aid agencies all agree that humanitarian relief programmes must include training on how to protect, promote and support breastfeeding, as well as how to support non breastfed children in ways that do not undermine breastfeeding.”
Patti has posted more information on policy and getting the message right here. Her notes include the following key points:
- Messages that suggest that women can’t breastfeed because of stress or malnourishment are not helpful and feed commonly held misconceptions. Mothers need support, protection, encouragement and reassurance – this is far more likely to help them maintain breastfeeding or relactate.
- Calls for donations of breastmilk substitutes and bottles and teats can do more harm than good. Bottle feeding is a huge risk in emergency situations and is unsustainable.
The mother should be the priority
The Mother and Child Foundation’s professor Michael Crawford comments:
“The points raised by Patti Rundall are really important, as the mother is nearly always forgotten as the spotlight falls on the child. This is a classic example, although by no means the worst.
“The mother should be the supreme priority. If she is malnourished her mental state can be affected, which can influence her attitude to her child. Malnourishment of the mother can also influence prenatal development, with a risk of affecting brain development and sowing the seeds for future chronic ill health in the child.
“These adverse effects on a child are life-long. Focusing on the child and ignoring the mother in famines and refugee situations is closing the door after the horse has bolted.”