Dispelling breastfeeding myths in Pakistan to boost child health

By Ayesha Leghari, DGM-Behavior Change Communication, MCH Program, Greenstar Social Marketing Pakistan

When my eldest son was born I was told by the elders of the family to dispose of the thick yellow breast milk since it was considered dirty and stale. Having no knowledge on breast milk, I showed no hesitance in wasting it since it did seem stale to me. With the birth of my second baby, because of my experience the first time, I didn’t hesitate to waste this think yellow milk within the first hour of giving birth.

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I learned just how wrong I was to waste the milk when I joined the Maternal and Child Health program. A pang of guilt ran through my body when I learned that the “stale think yellow milk” that I had so promptly wasted was filled with the most essential nutrients that I could have given my newborns. I felt like a bus of real truth knocked me out.

The gift of nature that is casually wasted in Pakistan and other developing countries and is commonly referred to as dirty or stale milk is actually called Colostrum. Research studies have proved that “colostrum is very rich in proteins, carbohydrates, vitamin A, and sodium chloride.” These vital nutrients help newborns fight off viral infections, reduces the chances of diarrhea (the leading killer of children) and prevents jaundice.”

Having had two children of my own and now being a part of this new Maternal and Child Health Program makes me think of how I could have done things differently. I now realize the tool that having children in succession and improper breastfeeding practices takes on a woman’s physical, mental and emotional well being. It is a bit ironic that I am working to educate mothers about breastfeeding, when I was once a mother who needed to learn a thing or two.

Launching a new Campaign

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USAID has recently launched a five year Maternal and Child Health (MCH) Program  to improve women’s and children’s health status in Pakistan. I joined as a part of the Behavior Change Communication component of this program. The first key message for this component is exclusive breastfeeding. Messages about early initiation and importance of colostrum went on-air on 6th July 2013. In August and September additional messages on exclusive breast feeding and the important of spacing the births of your children will also air.

Making an Emotional Appeal

The television commercial shows the bond that a mother and child have from the time of birth and evokes a feeling of love, compassion, attachment, selflessness, joy and protection. It captures the first precious moments that every mother shares with her newborn and how she wants the best of everything for her child.

With that emotional appeal, the commercial then describes colostrum in terms familiar to mothers: the thick yellow milk. It informs mothers to feed their newborns colostrum within the first hour of their birth. It goes on to highlight the benefit of colostrum.

Developing the first mass media campaign on exclusive breastfeeding taught me about the myths and misconceptions that exist in our society and how these small neglected behaviors affect the health of our children throughout their lives. My hope is that the Maternal and Child Health Program will provide the same education for all mothers in Pakistan.

Additional Information of the program

The new MCH Program is the main vehicle for USAID to meet its Development Objective of “Improved maternal and child health outcomes in targeted areas” for Pakistan. The MCH Program will support innovative approaches to strengthen the capacity of Pakistan’s public and private sectors to deliver high-impact, evidence-based health interventions to reduce maternal, newborn, and child mortality and morbidity.

As a proven, cost-effective way of appropriately spacing births (thereby decreasing maternal and child mortality), family planning services for healthy pregnancies will be an essential element in the MCH Program. Health communications, and specifically behavior change communication (BCC), will be a key cross-cutting element, critical to demand creation, while health systems strengthening efforts to ensure effective and equitable service delivery will serve as the foundation for the entire MCH Program.

PSI, and network member Greenstar Social Marketing, work together with Marie Stopes Society, Jhpiego/MCHIP, JSI Deliver and John Snow Inc. to implement different components of the MCH Program.