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Hunger, mothers and infants: Whose job is it to protect breastfeeding?

To mark World Breastfeeding Week we pay homage to the people who step up daily to help vulnerable mothers and babies
, Saskia Hicks
Rwanda: Community health workers perform a nutrition assessment in Gisizi.
Photo: WFP/Arete/Fredrik Lerneryd

Breastfeeding is inextricably linked to the image of mother and child and the beginning of our history. From ancient Egyptian copper statuettes of a prince suckling at his mother’s breast, to Leonardo’s famous Madonna Litta, there is no shortage of art and literature promoting the mother’s duty to breastfeed.  

Yet, starting from pregnancy, the array of circumstances that need to be in place in order for a mother to be able to successfully breastfeed her child are vast, and require a diverse supporting cast and system. Commitment is required from all sectors of society to create nurturing environments for breastfeeding, which will protect a woman’s and child’s health and nutrition for years to come. Here are five of the key stakeholders we believe are critical to promote and protect breastfeeding:

1. Fathers and partners
Family in Yemen
Yemen: Arafat, a a warehouse worker, fled the port of Hodeida with his family for Aden where they receive WFP support. Photo: WFP/Mohammed Awadh

Studies show that fathers are one of the strongest influences in exclusive and optimum breastfeeding. In addition to playing a key shared role in decision-making to initiate and maintain breastfeeding, a father or partner can also free up time for the mother by taking on other household duties. When fathers and partners support breastfeeding and caring for the baby, breastfeeding is more likely to be improved, the parental relationship is better, and the child’s development improves .

Bangladesh: A temporary clinic set up by UNICEF and WFP in the immediate aftermath of the fire that destroyed parts of Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar in March. Photo: WFP/ Sayed Asif Mahmud
2. The extended family

Families play a crucial role in breastfeeding practices. Research shows women who have support and encouragement from their family and broader social network are more likely to breastfeed. Being present and responsive to the needs of the mother is key in supporting breastfeeding for grandmother, uncle and aunt alike. 

Afghanistan: In Chaharikar, Parwan Province, Afghanistan, a doctor prepares to weigh a 1-year-old child. Photo: WFP/Massoud Hossaini
3. Government and health sector

Healthcare providers are often the main source of knowledge, tools and resources available to a mother and family. Physicians and nurses have been found to have a key influence on breastfeeding initiation rates and duration. It is therefore essential that governments commit adequate resources to the health sector on breastfeeding education and support. 

Guinea: A WFP project funded by the EU, in Siguiri, Kankan state, supports women and infants. Photo: WFP/Studio 2k
4. Community leaders and members

Community members play an important role in promoting and advocating for breastfeeding. Community leaders and members can set up peer support, breastfeeding clinics and share tips that can make breastfeeding less challenging.  

Zambia: Naomi, a mother supported by WFP in the Mantapala refugee settlement. Photo: WFP/Andy Higgins
5. Employers

Employment status and rights play a critical role in influencing the duration of breastfeeding. Establishing positive breastfeeding policies, facilities and practices in the workplace to support breastfeeding after returning to work is also key. A comfortable and private space for breastfeeding, sufficient facilities to express and store breast milk, flexible hours and rest breaks are just some of the positive practices that can be beneficial to optimal and exclusive breastfeeding. Breastfeeding employees can benefit from healthier infants, which can improve their own contribution and work attendance.

Learn more about WFP's work in Nutrition

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