UNICEF-trained volunteers promote exclusive breastfeeding in Republic of the Union of Myanmar

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By Angela Thaung

PHYU, Republic of the Union of Myanmar, 26 April 2011 – Daw Than Than Sein, 62, has seen and done it all when it comes to child rearing. She is a mother of 10 and has eight grandchildren.

She’s used to following local traditions when it comes to feeding infants: breast milk supplemented by water and honey for newborns, switching to homemade instant rice powder when they reach four months old.

UNICEF-trained volunteers knocked on her door in the village of Zay Taung in Phyu Township five months ago. Ms. Sein’s view of breastfeeding has since dramatically changed.

“The volunteers came to my home to tell us about exclusive breastfeeding – which means giving infants breast milk only, and not even water,” she said.

Breaking with tradition

Grandmothers in Myanmar are a primary influence in a mother deciding whether to exclusively breastfeed her child. Traditional infant feeding practices – often influenced by myths and misconceptions – have deterred exclusive breastfeeding. As a result, many children have missed out on the opportunity for a healthy start in life.

After several visits by the volunteers, Ms. Sein decided to support her daughter-in-law in practicing exclusive breastfeeding for her eighth and youngest grandchild, Yar Pyate Oo. He is exclusively breastfed and has been nicknamed ‘Trial Child’, serving as a role model for exclusive breastfeeding in the community.

“I brought up and took care of my children as well as my grandchildren throughout my life, but I note a difference in Yar Pyate Oo,” said Ms. Sein. “He is healthier than his brother.”

Yar Pyate Oo’s mother says he is livelier, and also notes the difference with his three-year-old brother. “Even though we gave my older son good food, medicines and care since he was born, he suffered from diarrhoea, respiratory problems, sleep disturbances and he still suffers from ailments,” said Chaw Sandar Oo, 26.

Trained Volunteers

Myo Myo, 51, is one of the UNICEF-trained volunteers trying to change attitudes towards exclusive breastfeeding for mothers and key influencers like Ms. Sein. “It is easier to convince pregnant and lactating mothers about exclusive breastfeeding because they can practice it and the results are not difficult to see,” she said.

Ms. Sein is now so convinced of the benefits that she’s taken it upon herself to promote exclusive breastfeeding to pregnant mothers and grandmothers in her community.

To build capacity and enhance communication skills of volunteers such as Myo Myo and Ms. Sein, UNICEF and the National Nutrition Centre run by Myanmar’s Ministry of Health, trained nearly 500 midwives, health workers and community volunteers last year alone.

“I now realize that infant formula feeding does not help. Rather it creates more problems. Exclusive breastfeeding is easier and there is no need to wash cups and bottles,” said Myo Myo, who had little knowledge about exclusive breastfeeding before attending the three-day training course. She now pays home visits and talks regularly to lactating mothers and pregnant women in remote villages.

Community outreach

With funding from the Government of Denmark, UNICEF in Myanmar has been implementing a communications strategy that promotes and supports exclusive breastfeeding practices in Phyu and Oktwin Townships in Bago Region since 2009.

It comprises media outreach through TV, radio, billboard and poster campaigns alongside community-based interpersonal communications to change local behaviours. Through such awareness activities and the local training of dynamic frontline communicators, UNICEF will continue promoting lifesaving messages on exclusive breastfeeding to ensure children are given the best start in life.