They are postermums for breastfeeding. The problem is they have no choice.

Video by World Vision

We hear and say it all the time – breastfeeding gives your child the best start in life.

We also hear the stories of women who can’t breastfeed their babies, because of social pressures, pain, time, or medical problems. We hear about the guilt experienced by mothers who can’t. We hear about the health effects on babies who weren’t. This is a complex situation requiring compassion — and action!

I was confronted this week by a stunning statistic from a recent World Vision report – A million have fled from South Sudan to Uganda. Another million have gone to Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. 81 per cent of mothers who have fled conflict and chaos in South Sudan to seek refuge in Uganda exclusively breastfeed their children for the first six months of their lives.

breastfeeding in refugee camps
Viola is one of the 81 per cent of Sudanese mothers breastfeeding in refugee camps. (Image: Supplied)

The percentage of mothers in Kenya is also high at 61 per cent.  Compare this to 15 per cent in Australia, 26 per cent in Canada, 19 per cent in New Zealand and 1 per cent in the UK.

What conclusion can we draw?

That African mothers have no access to alternatives? That they breastfeed because they have more time and fewer demands -- although those demands may be far worse than we can imagine? That a child born as a refugee has a better chance at getting that best nutritional start than a child born into wealth in one of the world’s richest countries?

If the answer to any of those questions is yes, then we all have some serious realities to confront.

I love the work we do at World Vision. Based on our experience in other conflict and natural disaster contexts we provide safe, quiet spaces where breastfeeding mothers can go. We teach new mothers techniques and help them see that breastfeeding takes patience and practice; that it doesn’t always come naturally and that so many of us struggle.

We also ensure that infant formula is available for babies who need it, but it isn’t widely distributed as part of relief efforts. Experience from past emergencies shows that infant formula distributions decrease breastfeeding rates.

LISTEN: Christie Hayes shares the guilt she felt when she couldn't breastfeed on the Year One podcast (post continues after audio...)

Nevertheless no amount of NGO programming can account for such a high percentage of exclusive breastfeeding. It has to be down to the fact that the refugee mothers simply have no choice—hungry kids need to be fed—and they have plenty of opportunity to practice. What these stats don’t tell us is if the mothers have an adequate diet, or if the babies get good nutrition when they start solid food.

There are so many physical, nutritional and emotional benefits associated with breastfeeding that it seems perverse that a refugee mother fleeing civil war is more like to breastfeed than a mother in the West.

The World Health Organisation recommends mothers worldwide to exclusively breastfeed infants for the child's first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health. We know it’s good for babies.

But far better for everyone when those mothers and babies live free from fear and harm, in warm homes, with regular access to nutritious food, and hope for a future of education and love. I don’t think we can call exclusive breastfeeding for six months in a refugee camp the best start for a child. It’s a good start, but we have a long way to go before we can call it the best.

Perhaps the only conclusion we can draw from this week’s statistic is that millions of children everywhere deserve better – more security, more support, more education, less judgement – and so do their mothers!

Colleen Emary, Technical Advisor on Health & Nutrition for World Vision International.

Close to one million refugees have fled the brutal civil war in  South Sudan. World Vision provides food, water, shelter and psychosocial support for those crossing the border. If you’d like to help, donate to World Vision here.

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