Development work can get me down sometimes. Because I have always understood that exclusive breastfeeding up to six months was fabulous for a baby’s health. In fact, it can lead to lifelong impairment: yet, now that I have discovered this, the silence is horrifying.
So here’s the problem: it’s a matter of malnutrition in mothers. Now mothers need a lot of extra nutrition during pregnancy.
An example is iron, which is needed to create hemoglobin which carries oxygen around the body. Without it, we get anemia with a whole host of consequences, including exhaustion.
Pregnant mothers can quickly fall into anemia because they suddenly develop a lot more blood, on average 45% more, so if their hemoglobin production does not increase, this blood remains an inferior oxygen carrier. .
About half of anemia is caused by a lack of iron. But other deficiencies can also trigger it, including deficiencies in zinc, vitamin B12 and other micronutrients.
As a result, with all this added strain on the body and often barely any more nutritious diets, around 55% of Kenyan mothers are anemic during pregnancy.
This affects the baby a lot, since iron and other nutrients, such as vitamin B, are essential for the development of his brain and organs. Shortages at this stage lead to high blood pressure and heart problems later in life, as well as impaired intelligence, social and motor skills.
So far so well known. What we don’t talk about is what happens when this mother with anemia – who rarely gets tested for anemia, which is rather expensive – starts breastfeeding exclusively.
For a well-nourished mother, breast milk is the perfect food. But testing its nutrient content in other circumstances had been difficult until recently. Now it can, and results show that malnourished mothers deliver breast milk that is substantially low in nutrients that cause anemia and multiple problems for babies.
If a mother breastfeeds in addition to anemia during pregnancy, the damage is a double burden, from gestation and bad breast milk as well.
If this mother receives daily iron supplements or multivitamins during pregnancy and breastfeeding, most of the problem is solved, but very little is. Indeed, a Chinese scientist has reported that exclusive breastfeeding without iron supplements is one of the four greatest risks of brain damage.
Yet, in the development world, every publication I’ve seen pushes for exclusive breastfeeding, and none say it’s only healthy if the mother takes supplements. It also does not offer to test for anemia or any other signs of poor or unbalanced nutrition. So we encourage breastfeeding for all mothers, and sometimes it harms babies.