World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated each year in more than 170 countries. It aims to encourage breastfeeding and improve the health of babies around the world. Breastfeeding is the best way to provide newborns with the nutrients they need, and the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends breastfeeding until a baby is six months old and to continue breastfeeding, with the addition of nutritious complementary foods, for up to two years.
USAID says that exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of life prevents malnutrition, subsequent pregnancy, and potential death from infections. Babies who are not exclusively breastfed have a one- to two-times greater risk of dying than breastfed babies and the risk of mortality is even greater when children receive food and other liquids in addition to breast milk, or are not breastfed at all.
The decline in the number of women breastfeeding their babies in Yemen is contributing to high rates of malnutrition among the country’s children who are under five years old, according to UNICEF representatives in Sana’a.
Yemen’s child malnutrition rates are among the highest in the world. Half of all children under five years are stunted and a further one million are acutely malnourished, according to the World Food Programme’s (WFP) 2014 statistics.
While health experts recommend exclusive breastfeeding for a child up to 6 months of age, Yemen’s most recent demographic health survey showed that only 16 percent of women exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months, with a further 33 percent using a mixture of breastfeeding and a homemade solution of sugar and water.
The Country Director of Save the Children International in Yemen, Edward Santiago, stated that one out of two children in Yemen are malnourished. One of the main reasons is that 88% of Yemeni children are deprived of their right to receive breastfeeding.
“Through our health and nutrition interventions in Hodeida and other governorates we are strongly protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding. Everyone can and should contribute to achieve each of the Millennium Development Goals in a substantial way and exclusive breastfeeding and adequate complementary feeding is a way to achieve them and they are key interventions for improving child survival, potentially saving children’s lives,” Santiago added.
Infant feeding is one of the most important decisions that new families make. Evidence is clear that breastfeeding is the ideal way to feed an infant. Research shows that infants who are not exclusively breastfed for their first six months of life are more likely to develop a wide range of chronic and acute diseases, including ear infections, diarrheal diseases, asthma, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, obesity, and respiratory illnesses. Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding with a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.
Up to 53 percent of Yemeni women tend to rely on infant formula. However, poor water sanitation, poverty, and high illiteracy rates mean that Yemen does not have the social, economic, or environmental factors needed for the extensive and safe use of milk substitutes.
“These mothers will make a standard tin of formula, which should last around four days, last for up to two weeks by diluting the product so much that it fails to nourish the child,” said Dr Rajia Sharhan, a nutrition officer for UNICEF in Sana’a. “They just can’t afford to buy it regularly and families are putting themselves in extreme situations to do so.”
Moreover, in a country where 13 million people do not have access to safe water supplies, baby formula is commonly mixed with unclean water and dispensed in unsterilized bottles, often causing the child to become ill.
Milk substitutes are not officially allowed to be sold in Yemen without a doctor’s prescription. However, this law is rarely adhered to as nearly all shops, even in the most rural communities, stock the product. Yet, with 41 percent of Yemeni women being illiterate, many are unable to read the instructions on the packaging to understand the best way to use the product.