Hadiza Moussa never breast-fed her daughter and has not forgiven herself for the death of her newborn baby from pneumonia two years ago.
Like many mothers in Niger, an impoverished nation on the southern edge of the Sahara with the world’s highest birth rate, she thought at the time it was for the best.
“I thought it would be better to get her used to artificial milk given that I would have to start work again after three months,” Moussa said on Tuesday at the end of World Breastfeeding Week, a global campaign to educate mothers.
“Even today the image of this child still haunts me. In truth, she died because the illness attacked an organism that was already very weak. Despite intensive care, she didn’t make it, and I still blame myself,” said Moussa, a civil servant.
Breastfeeding babies in the first hour of life allows the mother’s bacteria to colonize the infant’s gut and skin, providing antibodies and other protective proteins which serve as its first immunization and protect against infections.
Experts recommend women stick exclusively to breast-feeding for six months after birth and continue to breast-feed alongside solid foods for two years or more.
“If babies breastfed within the first hour, 1 million lives might be saved,” the campaign, backed by the World Health Organization (WHO) and U.N. Children’s Fund UNICEF, said on its Web site.
A recent study in 37 countries showed 41 percent of mothers fed their infants exclusively on breast milk in the first six months of their lives, according to UNICEF. In the United States, that has risen to its highest level on record, officials said last week.
But UNICEF said some studies showed the lives of an additional 1.3 million children globally would be saved if the rate were increased to 90 percent, and found that neonatal mortality fell by a fifth when babies were breast-fed within an hour of birth.
Breast-feeding increases infants’ chances of fighting off common conditions such as ear and respiratory tract infections or diarrhea, illnesses easily treated in much of the Western world but which can prove fatal in a country like Niger.
Outside the capital Niamey, many live in mud hut villages in some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, plagued by drought-like conditions for much of the year and flash-flooding during the rainy season which brings diseases like cholera.
Only 16 percent of births are attended by skilled health workers and with just three physicians for every 100,000 people — compared to 256 in the United States and 106 in China — average life expectancy is just 45 years.
Eight in 10 adults are illiterate. With only half of children attending school, traditional beliefs passed on from village elders as well as aggressive marketing campaigns by Western milk formula producers often go unchallenged.
In some regions, members of the largest Hausa ethnic group refuse to breast-feed the first-born child because they believe the mother’s milk would poison the infant. In other areas, babies are given herbal tea and cows’ milk despite the increased risk of potentially fatal diarrhea.
Even in some parts of the West, women are reluctant to breast-feed because they fear it will spoil their figure.
In 2004 the rate of exclusive breast-feeding by U.S. mothers through the first three months after birth was 31 percent, well shy of the government’s target of 60 percent, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
China launched a campaign to persuade more women to breast feed last week, worried that its babies’ development was lagging wealthier countries because parents did not know when to start introducing solid foods or balance nutritional needs.
Moussa shyly acknowledged that unlike many women in Niger, she had been given information about how to feed her newborn baby. But it was another cultural phenomenon — the practice of men taking several wives — that put her off.
“I did it because I wanted to keep my breasts firm for my husband, who as a traveling businessman is exposed to the temptation of polygamy,” she said. “I admit the tragedy I went through was not because I sinned out of ignorance but because of a lack of prudence.”