Breastfeeding in Africa

Growing up in Africa I loved to go visiting with my parents because there was always a baby to hold. The whole time my mom was talking, I was playing with the youngest baby of the family.  When it was time to go, the family would make a big show of saying I should take the baby.  Then I would laugh and pat my flat chest and ask, “But what would the baby eat?”  And it was with great joy that the baby’s mom opened her arms wide and pulled her baby back to her breast. Though I seemed to have it all, the one thing I didn’t have was what the baby needed most – Mom’s milk. 

No doubt there is a health disparity between the wealthy and the poor, the educated and the uneducated, the urban and the rural, but when it comes to infant nutrition – breastfeeding is the great equalizer. Sadly there is a misconception that since wealthy people have access to bottles and formula, it must be better for the baby. The research has shown again and again that breast is best.  Babies in Africa that bottle feed are at higher risk for malnutrition and diarrheal diseases. In a lot of ways with unreliable water, electricity, and the cost of formula, it’s often the easier choice as well.

The WHO recommends that babies should be breastfed exclusively from birth to 6 months.  After 6 months the baby will need complementary feeds, but should continue breastfeeding up to 2 years of age or beyond.  If you have moved to a developing country with an infant I want to encourage you to let go of a lot of your Western inhibitions.  Let your African neighbor show you how natural it is to feed your baby as you sit on a mat, chatting with your friends.  There is a bond in motherhood that says, “We’re in this together”.  

While breastfeeding is natural and your body has everything it needs to feed your baby, it still takes a while to learn.  It’s fascinating to hear about different cultures’ traditions following birth. Most of the time family and friends take over the usual responsibilities and mom’s full-time job is to feed her newborn.   When I have surveyed African friends that have delivered in the United States about their experience I expected them to say that they loved the pain control and it was such a better experience, but all have answered that they missed that family support. 

I love this video that captures the reality of breastfeeding.

If you don’t have that kind of family support and have never breastfed before, I encourage you to read what you can about breastfeeding before you deliver. I have included links to helpful websites. I would encourage you to start with the breastfeeding course I compiled from the WHO Combined Course on Growth Assessment and IYCF Counseling as it is comprehensive, evidence based, and provides worldwide recommendations. 

Breastfeeding class notes from WHO Combined Course on Growth Assessment and IYCF Counseling 

Many people have recommended this website:

The La Leche League International offers many resources to encourage and help breastfeeding families.

This website is very helpful for tracking newborn weight. While babies lose some birth weight initially, they will often be back up to birthweight by a couple of weeks. This evidence based weight tracker can help reassure you that baby is gaining as expected:

Don’t underestimate the support of encouraging friends, sisters, aunts, mothers and also mother-in-laws. While there are no lactation consultants in Malawi that I know of, I would be happy to consult with you or put you in contact with other breastfeeding moms if you have any questions and/or concerns.

There are times when breastfeeding is either not possible or too overwhelming for a family. I just want to make sure that you have all the support you need as you make your choice. Just because you may not breastfeed one child, doesn’t mean that it won’t be possible with other children. Mothers that don’t have the opportunity to breastfeed shouldn’t feel like a failure. Since my boys were adopted at 5 months of age, I didn’t have the joy of breastfeeding them. We enjoyed precious bonding as I cuddled them and looked in their faces as I fed them their bottles. While breastfeeding is best and even more convenient, especially in Africa, I feel like bottle feeding can be done safely if needed with proper preparation.

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