Mali: Estimated 96% of Mothers Bet on Breastmilk During First Hours of Life

New attitudes towards breastfeeding will improve infant-health and fight malnutrition, disease.

Some 96% of mothers in Mali’s Gao region do not consider colostrum dangerous for their infants, and eight of every ten allow them to breastfeed in the first 24 hours after birth. Colostrum – a thick, yellowish milk produced by a mother’s breasts only in the days immediately after childbirth – is high in antibodies, carbohydrates, and protein, and important for infant health. Many cultures are suspicious of colostrum, believing that it can cause children to experience diarrhea and other illnesses.

The improvement of nutritional habits to combat infant malnutrition is the objective of an Action Against Hunger project in Mali, funded by the Spanish Agency of International Cooperation.

Action Against Hunger, who conducted surveys in Mali’s Gao region – where the organization manages numerous projects in nutrition and hygiene – has identified considerable improvements in the dietary habits of mothers with respect to their children: in the most recent poll, nearly 100% of mothers surveyed allow their children to suckle colostrum, and the proportion of mothers that choose breastmilk for their children over water or animal milk has risen drastically from 67% in July 2006 to 96% in April of this year. More than half also report allowing their child to breastfeed in the moments immediately following birth.

“A woman is capable of adapting her beliefs if she sees that changes in her habits will benefit her child. The maternal instinct to protect a child’s survival trumps all traditions,” says Núria Salse, chief nutritionist for Action Against Hunger–Spain. Mothers who have attended breastfeeding support groups and workshops established their peers within the community better understand the underlying causes of malnutrition, and can even recognize the signs of vitamin A deficiency. The number of mothers who know how to identify crepuscular blindness (a direct consequence of vitamin A deficiency) and can apply methods of prevention has tripled from last year. "In order to reduce infant malnutrition, it is fundamental for mothers to understand that it is essential for their babies receive colostrum, which provides special protection against disease, and is rich in vitamins, minerals, and calories which the child needs to grow,” says Núria.

Furthermore, the survey revealed that hygiene and sanitation habits, such as handwashing with soap and burning or burying of waste, are now practiced by 60% of families, twice the number from 2006. “These practices are simple and easy to apply, and can prevent illnesses like cholera and diarrhea, spread by dirty water – illnesses that take the lives of 5-million people every year,” explains Pablo Alcalde, who oversees water and sanitation projects for Action Against Hunger – Spain.

Action Against Hunger has been working in Mali since 1996, with projects focused on improving health, nutrition, food security, water and sanitation. During the past several months, new programs have been launched that address the relationship of nutrition and AIDS. Such programs will bring attention to the risks and methods of prevention of the disease, as well as educate women about mother-to-child transmission.