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NYT Column on How Breastfeeding Could Save Lives in Africa

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New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is traveling through Africa right now, reporting on malnutrition.  Here’s an excerpt:

What if nutritionists came up with a miracle cure for childhood malnutrition? A protein-rich substance that doesn’t require refrigeration? One that is free and is available even in remote towns like this one in Niger where babies routinely die of hunger-related causes?

Impossible, you say? Actually, this miracle cure already exists. It’s breast milk.

When we think of global poverty, we sometimes assume that the challenges are so vast that any solutions must be extraordinarily complex and expensive. Well, some are. But almost nothing would do as much to fight starvation around the world as the ultimate low-tech solution: exclusive breast-feeding for the first six months of life. That’s the strong recommendation of the World Health Organization.

The paradox is that while this seems so cheap and obvious — virtually instinctive — it’s also rare. Here in Niger, only 9 percent of babies get nothing but breast milk for the first six months of life, according to a 2007 national nutrition survey. At least that’s up from just 1 percent in 1998.

(In the United States, about 13 percent of babies are exclusively breast-fed for six months, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Then again, most of the rest get formula, which is pretty safe in America.)…

The challenges with breast-feeding in poor countries are not the kinds that Western women face, and many women in the developing world continue nursing their babies for two years. The biggest problem is giving water or animal milk to babies, especially on hot days. Another is that mothers often doubt the value of colostrum, the first milk after childbirth (which is thick and yellowish and doesn’t look much like milk), and delay nursing for a day or two…



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