Breastfeeding in an Ethiopian Refugee Camp

“If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for the first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years, about 800,000 child lives would be saved every year.” The World Health Organization

In an emergency, breastfeeding is the safest way to protect infants from an increased risk of infection, malnutrition and death. But for Fatima, a 32-year-old mother of seven from Somalia, exclusive breastfeeding was the last thing on her mind when she fled the violence in her country four years ago. She is now living in the Melkadida refugee camp in Ethiopia, where she has learned the simple, lifesaving power of exclusive breastfeeding from International Medical Corps.

International Medical Corps-trained staff in Ethiopia’s refugee camps have taken an active role in teaching mothers about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding in order to avoid the risks of malnutrition in a refugee camp and secure their infants’ futures as healthy young children. The staff teaches classes to women about the benefits of breastfeeding, as well as proper technique, exclusivity and duration and timely and appropriate complimentary food for babies once they reach six months of age.

Fatima says, “Before we came to Ethiopia we were living in a rural area of Somalia and there was no health education provided about breastfeeding.” When she arrived at the camp pregnant with her 8th child, she was sent to the Infant and Young Child Feeding program at the nutrition center where an International Medical Corps nurse taught Fatima everything she needed to know about exclusive breastfeeding. When Fatima delivered her eighth child, a son named Hamy, she put her lessons into practice and started to breastfeed him immediately after birth. Then, on the advice of her nurse, she continued to exclusively breastfeed Hamy for six months. After six months, she started to slowly feed Hamy other locally available foods, which she learned how to prepare from her nurse.

Most remarkably, Fatima can see the tangible difference that exclusive breastfeeding is making in Hamy, who is now seven months old, compared to her seven other children who all suffered from malnutrition and were not breastfed exclusively as infants. A recent survey taken in the neighboring Dolo Ado camp revealed that some common beliefs, myths and misconceptions held among Somali women included feeding newborn babies plain or sugar water and/or butter. Fatima says of the difference between Hamy and his siblings, “Hamy is a healthier, strong and happier child than his oldest brothers and sister because I feed him breast milk only. I and my older children are witness to the benefits and effects of breast milk.”

Fatima is also a member of a “mother care group”, a peer-to-peer support group for mothers to share important health information. Fatima teaches other mothers in the refugee camp about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and uses her child Hamy as a real-life example of its benefits. She says, “Breastfeeding can make any child happier and healthier.”

International Medical Corps has operated a diversified health program in Ethiopia since 2003. The organization began to respond to the influx of Somali refugees into the country in 2011 and started up an Infant and Young Child Feeding program in Dolo Ado Refugee Camp in January 2012.

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