False beliefs about breastfeeding surge child mortality rate in Tanzania

On eve of World Breastfeeding Week starting from Sunday, Tanzanian health officials say they are fighting incorrect cultural beliefs

Kizito Makoye  | 31.07.2021 - Update : 01.08.2021
False beliefs about breastfeeding surge child mortality rate in Tanzania FILE PHOTO

NJOMBE, Tanzania 

Deep-rooted cultural beliefs that breast milk makes the child lazy or feel thirsty have made Tanzania hold the infamous distinction of having the highest maternal mortality rates in the world.

According to 2016 statistics available from the National Bureau of Statistics, the East African country was reporting 556 deaths per 100,000 expecting mothers annually. The Demographic Health Survey has recorded that only 59% of infants in the country are being breastfed exclusively in their first six months of life.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency, Mariana Sanga, 31, mother of four children living at Lunyanywi village in Tanzania’s southern Njombe region, said when she gave birth to her first child, her aunt advised her not to breastfeed the baby.

Instead of her milk, she was feeding the baby with water mixed with sugar and soft porridge. The advice of her aunt has left her children dangerously malnourished.

“My firstborn is stunted because I did not breastfeed her. I made a terrible mistake which I will live to regret,” she said.

Sanga is among many women in the impoverished region who mistakenly believed in wrong cultural beliefs and compromised the health of her children.

At Lunyanywi village these beliefs and taboos are deeply rooted that many women neglect health advice.

Lydia Semwaiko, 31, who lives in Ludewa district in Njombe with her family, said she stopped breastfeeding after a few months because she could not enjoy intercourse with her husband.

“I did not want him to sleep with other women that is why I stopped breastfeeding my child,” she said.

Some communities in Njombe still believe mother’s milk becomes unclean if she is involved in extramarital relationships. They also believe that a baby can gain weight faster when fed with porridge during the first few days after birth.

While most women in the impoverished region have realized the power of colostrum –thick milk produced by mothers soon after delivery, the cultural beliefs are still keeping many mothers away from newborn babies, who consider this nutritious liquid dirty, because of its yellow color.

Requires sustained awareness

Local health experts say to express the need for a sustained awareness campaign to remove these incorrect beliefs.

Antimony Massawe, a leading pediatric specialist based in Dar es Salaam, is trying hard to remove these beliefs and create awareness about breastfeeding.

“Breastfeeding is the baby’s first vaccine. It provides protection against life-threatening conditions and promotes healthy growth,” he said.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has also recommended exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for at least two years with a supplementary diet.

Health workers say, besides cultural beliefs, the lack of support from the spouse also prevents women from breastfeeding their babies.

To dispel these myths, the government has identified and trained over 6,000 community health workers to create awareness about nutrition and to educate mothers about the importance of breastfeeding.

“We are aiming to reach both mothers and fathers so that they can work together to improve their family’ nutrition,” said Yusta Tarimo, a district community health worker in Njombe.

According to Tarimo sometimes babies want to breastfeed just for comfort or put themselves to sleep.

At Lupembe village some women say when babies start putting hands into their mouths and chew them it is a sign that they are ready for solid foods.

Asha Mwita, 22, said when she eats and her baby looks at her admiringly, she feeds her with solid food.

“I want her to get used to solid food as I am tired of breastfeeding,” she said.

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