Women Powered Nutrition Enhancing Child Survival

by Amref Health Africa

Naisa Nting’ilo’s eldest son constantly suffers from a cold and his body is generally weak. Naisa believes that her son has a weak immune system because the first meal she fed him after birth was nkorno – unpasteurized and curded goat milk.

There are several cultural beliefs among the Samburu pastoralist community surrounding the birth and feeding of a baby. They believe that a baby is born with dirty intestines and only the curded milk can cleanse the stomach and prevent the onset of diarrhoea in the future.

However, Naisa says she is now wiser. The healthy children in Lorubae Community Unit, Samburu County are evidence of the harmful culture that she and her peers have abandoned. Naisa is a member of a mother-to-mother support group where pregnant women and mothers with young children come together in a safe place to exchange ideas, share experiences, give and receive information and at the same time offer and receive support including breastfeeding, child rearing, and women’s health.

Empowered mind sets

“We enrol women into the mother support groups from the onset of pregnancy until when their children are two years old. In the group, the women share their experiences on reproductive health and motherhood which helps them to overcome barriers of access and utilisation of maternal and child health services,” explains Community Health Worker (CHW) Cecilia Apoo.

According to Naisa who joined the Lorubae Mother Support Group in October 2018 when she was pregnant with her second child, the information and support given in the group has prevented problems and addressed barriers to exclusive breastfeeding and malnutrition.

“In the past, we used to deliver at home and a new born baby could only be fed after the naming ceremony which happened only at sunrise. So if the baby was born at night, he or she would only be fed in the morning after the naming ceremony. However, with the emphasis made in the mother support group on antenatal attendance and skilled delivery, most mothers and babies are guaranteed the right start to a healthy life,” explains Naisa.

The best start for every new born

“After delivery at the health facility, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their new-borns within the first hour of birth. We are then required to exclusively breastfeed the baby for six months without introducing any food or liquids,” explains Esther Naitolo, a mother of six and a first time member of the peer group. Esther says that the peer group discussions have helped mothers demystify most of the myths surrounding breastfeeding. It was a general belief that whenever a baby cried, it was because they were hungry and adding water or substituting breastmilk with goat milk or food would satisfy the baby.

From the experiences shared by the mothers in the group, they have learnt that babies constantly need breastfeeding and whenever the baby cries, it could be as a result of intolerance from something in the breastmilk, wind, constipation or reflux.

According to Esther, the information and support given in the groups has helped to address the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding and led to timely introduction of complementary foods. The supportive environment of the peer groups helps mothers to adopt and continue optimal infant feeding practices.

As for Naisa, she has learnt that breastmilk is the source of all the nutrients an infant needs for a healthy life; something her eldest son did not gain.  

Naisa explains that mothers no longer give goat urine to infants for treatment of diarrhoea; instead, they seek services from the nearest health facility and practice proper hygiene including hand washing before breastfeeding and when handling infants.

Community health workers demonstrating how to effectively breastfeed during a peer group forum for mothers in Samburu County

A Family Affair

The progress made by the peer group has encouraged men to support their spouses in exclusive breastfeeding.

“Some of the myths our community has are detrimental to the wellbeing of our women and children. Without the knowledge of how better to take care of a pregnant woman and a new born, we were losing many lives. We have seen how healthy and strong mothers are when they deliver at the health facility. When they attend the peer group meetings, they always come home with progressive ideas including maintaining a healthy diet, exclusive breastfeeding for six months and taking a break of at least two years in between pregnancies. When you have evidence you do not need to be blind to the harmful ways of the past,” explains Naisa’s husband John.

John, a father of 12 children and a husband to two wives credits the wellbeing of his second family to the peer support group his wife attends. He says that since Naisa started attending the peer group meetings and practicing what they are taught, his second family is much healthier than his first family and that is why he advocates for exclusive breastfeeding among his peers.   Through the support of USAID, Afya Timiza is working with hard to reach communities of Samburu and Turkana Counties to improve the health outcomes for women, children and adolescents

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