Gram Panchayat Ramkrishnapur, South 24 Parganas, West Bengal: It is here that I met Rehana Bibi, mother of three and village brand ambassador for breastfeeding.
Rizwan, six months old, is her third son and weighs above normal as compared to other infants his age.
All of Rehana’s three children were given colostrum (mother’s first milk) within the first hour of their birth and were exclusively breastfed till six months of age.
Rehana was guided by the anganwadi worker Roshnara Begum who used to visit her before and after the birth of her children.
Now a majority of the women in the village opt to breastfeed their children within an hour of birth.
“But it was not easy” explains Roshnara Begum. Initially people in the village used to be tough on her, “but now they understand and many mothers like Rehana have come forward to help me promote breastfeeding.”
“Although we are doing better than before, there are still many myths associated with breastfeeding like – 'the child may feel thirsty and can be given water as mother’s milk is not enough' or 'some give honey after birth’, which is wrong” emphasizes Supriti Das, lady supervisor working within the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) scheme in that area.
Children should be breastfed within one hour of birth and exclusively breastfed till six months of age. Appropriate supplementary feed can be given after six months of the child's age with continued breastfeeding upto two years or beyond, she reiterates.
“Anganwadi workers try and convince the mothers and other family members during discussions when I visit their homes” she adds.
What Supriti Das alludes to are optimal infant and young child feeding practices. These help combat malnutrition among children and help save lives.
Studies reveal that malnutrition among children is responsible, directly or indirectly, for more than 50 percent of all deaths among children under five years of age.
Over two-thirds of these deaths are associated with inappropriate feeding practices and occur during the first year of life.
Optimal infant and young child feeding practices – especially early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life – help ensure young children the best possible start in life.
Rehana now counsels her friends on child feeding guidelines in local language. She rattles off names of locally made food items such as khichdi, suji ki kheer, banana, which are appropriate complementary foods that can be given to infants after six months and that one can continue breastfeeding for up to two years or beyond.
The first week in August is marked as 'World Breastfeeding Week' and is also an opportunity to strengthen our outreach efforts to promote infant and young child feeding practices across India.
The theme for this year's World Breastfeeding Week is 'Mother Support - a call for greater support for mothers in achieving the gold standard of infant feeding'.
Rehana is an ideal ambassador to take this theme forward. She may not know or understand the finer technical points but she not only follows the guidelines explained to her but also motivates other mothers to give the best start to their children’s lives.
West Bengal has higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding till six months i.e. 58.6 percent, as compared to the national average of 46.4 percent, yet early initiation of breast feeding within one hour is only 23.5 percent.
To overcome this challenge, we need many more like Rehana to take forward a simple step to save the lives of their children.