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Breastfeeding helps mothers and their babies thrive

August 03, 2021

mother breastfeeding infant

As FHI 360 marks its 50th anniversary, explore our history of solutions and future of possibilities.

Breastmilk gives babies a strong start in life by offering antibodies that build immunity, probiotics that support a healthy digestive tract and nutrition for babies that is unparalleled. Women who breastfeed gain health benefits, including a reduced risk for cancer and other diseases. Breastfeeding has no environmental impact and comes with economic benefits for parents, employers and insurers.

But, breastfeeding is not always easy. Women can encounter challenges, including not receiving sufficient support in the hospital, after they leave the hospital and when they return to work.

Protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding requires a 360-degree approach, from advocating for family-friendly policies, to training health care workers and creating online peer support networks. FHI 360’s nutrition-focused subsidiary, FHI Solutions, is working with caregivers around the world on these issues. Its initiatives 1,000 Days and Alive & Thrive are helping to tackle the challenges that can make it harder for women to breastfeed.

Making the case for paid leave in the United States

Nearly one in four women in the United States returns to work within two weeks of giving birth. The country has no national paid family and medical leave policy that guarantees mothers paid time off during pregnancy or after, when they need to care for their newborns. Paid leave can help increase breastfeeding rates.

1,000 Days conducted a recent study to examine how lack of paid leave affects the well-being of new mothers and their babies, focusing on women in low-wage jobs. Its resulting Qualitative Paid Leave Report and multimedia site highlight the experiences of 20 women throughout their third trimester of pregnancy and the first six months of their babies’ lives.

Almost one-third of these mothers said that their employers were unsympathetic to their postpartum needs, mainly time off from work. All but one of them had to take unpaid time off postpartum. The mother who did not returned to work one day after giving birth.

“We deserve time to be able to know the children that we birth, without the mental duress or anticipation of returning back to work too soon,” said Brianna, a study participant.

Watch Brianna’s story.

To highlight breastfeeding in different communities and to help build a culture of breastfeeding support, 1,000 Days has launched the #BreastfeedingIs campaign with the National WIC Association, which advocates for women, infants and children. 

Involving male doctors in breastfeeding counseling in Laos

Through Alive & Thrive, FHI Solutions fights to save lives, prevent illness and ensure healthy mothers and children. It works in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam to strengthen breastfeeding-friendly health systems. One goal is to establish Centers of Excellence for Breastfeeding within the health systems of those countries. This designation indicates that a facility provides a supportive breastfeeding environment.

In Laos, the initiative is integrating parts of the Centers of Excellence for Breastfeeding approach into hospital accreditation standards, starting with health facilities. At Phine District Hospital, Alive & Thrive piloted an inpatient breastfeeding support training in March 2021. The project team created the course to extend the World Health Organization Western Pacific Regional Office’s protocol on early essential newborn care, which lays out care recommendations for mothers during labor and delivery and for newborns after birth.

To help health care workers feel comfortable discussing breastfeeding and to alleviate hesitancy new mothers might have with male doctors, doctors learned to use dolls to teach breastfeeding techniques. “Having hands-on training empowers men to feel confident in their own skills to provide support,” said Jennifer Cashin, Regional Technical Specialist for Alive & Thrive.

After the training:

  • One hundred percent of new mothers received breastfeeding support.
  • Ninety-six percent experienced uninterrupted skin-to-skin contact with their babies — which encourages milk production and is critical for early initiation of breastfeeding— for 90 minutes post-birth.
  • Eighty percent exclusively breastfed before they were discharged from the hospital.

The project team will expand the trainings to additional facilities and partner with the national newborn care committee to monitor the program’s efficacy.

Improving support for breastfeeding in Myanmar

Myanmar has been struggling with a political crisis and a weakened public health system. A third wave of COVID-19 is devastating the country, and food prices are surging, leaving many at risk of food insecurity and malnutrition. Pregnant women do not know where to give birth, and thousands of children have been unable to get routine vaccinations. Maternal and newborn care has suffered.

FHI Solutions, through Alive & Thrive, began partnering in January 2021 with a local nutrition group, Healthy and Happy Families, to develop new educational content for its Facebook page and to create a Facebook group, Mommy’s Milk (MayMay ChoCho in Burmese). Mothers post breastfeeding concerns on Mommy’s Milk that are addressed by moderators and other group members. The group’s moderators also host a weekly question-and-answer session. The group is modeled after other breastfeeding peer support networks, including the Vietnamese group Betibuti. Alive & Thrive has facilitated an ongoing learning exchange between the two groups.

“Babies don’t stop being born during a crisis, and parents continue to have questions,” said Cashin. Flexibility, local ownership and innovative information-sharing can help meet people’s needs when in-person support is not possible.

Photo credit: Pham Thu Hang/FHI 360