I wasn’t producing enough breast milk to fill my newborn baby’s tummy. The doctor was reluctant to release us from the hospital, so he called for the big guns. I watched in trepidation as the nurse wheeled it into the room: a state-of the-art, hospital grade, electrically powered, double breast pump. She sat me in a big chair, and attached it to my chest.

For the next hour, the machine tugged at my body, simulating the actions of two giant babies. The idea was to raise the hormones that would bump my milk production to the next level. I knew it was the right thing to do, but I felt like a cow on a modern-day dairy farm.

Struggling to feed my baby

This wasn’t how I had pictured new motherhood. Throughout my pregnancy, endless smiling women had assured me that breastfeeding was “the most natural thing in the world.” Since time immemorial, artists have portrayed serene mothers calmly nursing their babies. “They must have been painted by men,” I muttered to myself as my pumps tugged away without mercy.

A painting from Ukraine of the Virgin Mary feeding Baby Jesus. Photo in the public domain.

On World Breastfeeding Week, my early breastfeeding memories are especially vivid. My milk production slowly increased as the days went by, but I recall crying in pain when I cracked and bled. Worst of all was the fear that my child would go hungry, because I couldn’t feed him.

Working at an international aid and development agency, I’ve learned to put these memories into perspective. True, it was a real battle to eventually get the milk flowing.

But there was never any real threat that baby Derrick’s health would suffer or that, God forbid, he would die. We had access to a whole team of breastfeeding experts. There was equipment on hand to help my body produce milk. As a last resort, we had the clean water to switch to safe, nutritious infant formula.

The global picture

But for millions of babies around the world, breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death. Every year, nearly 3 million newborn babies die in the first month of life. Breastfeeding challenges are one of the reasons why.

According to the World Health Organization, exclusive breastfeeding is the optimal way of feeding babies for the first six months of their lives. Breast milk is packed with nutrients that a newborn needs to grow strong and healthy, and fight off illness and infection. In regions where water sources are often contaminated and medical clinics are few and far between, nothing beats breastfeeding.

Yet women giving birth in one of the world’s poorest regions must often overcome immense obstacles to breastfeed. Here are just a few, starting from conception:

  • Mom lacks nutritious food to eat, affecting both the baby’s development and her ability to produce milk.
  • Mom has few or no prenatal checkups, during which breastfeeding education would normally begin here in Canada.
  • Mom has no trained birth attendant to help with delivery, putting both her life and that of her baby at risk.
  • Mom is without trained care during the first hours and days of baby’s life, as she starts trying to breastfeed. (This was the toughest time for me; I undoubtedly would have given up without support.)
  • Mom and baby have little or no follow-up care and support, as she tries to continue breastfeeding.

In Zambia, Dyna had no one to help her begin breastfeeding her newborn son. “I delivered at home, alone,” she remembers. “There was no one to even help cut the umbilical cord.” Photo courtesy of World Vision

Helping the world’s moms to breastfeed

One of reasons I’m so proud to work for World Vision is the programs we provide for pregnant women, newborn babies, and little ones in their first two years of life. Despite all of the challenges, we’re seeing more and more moms breastfeeding their babies. It’s wonderful to see young mothers, like Mee in Laos, overjoyed at the progress their little ones are making — partly because breastfeeding worked so well.

Thanks to a World Vision program, Mee, who lived far from her nearest health clinic, received checkups from a mobile health team during pregnancy and after childbirth, including support with breastfeeding. Photo courtesy of World Vision

I’m relieved to know that in emergencies such as earthquakes, we set up special centres for moms and babies, so that breastfeeding can continue uninterrupted during times of immense fear and stress. I recall well how stress can make milk feeding even more difficult.

During Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines, centres for mothers and young children gave moms a place to nurse their babies, receive care and counselling, and support one another in breastfeeding. Photo courtesy of World Vision

Next Steps

I am also excited that World Vision we’re focused on increasing support for breastfeeding women through our 1000 Day Journey project.

In partnership with the Canadian government, we will work with communities in five countries to ensure optimal nutrition for children’s first 1000 days. Those 1000 days are one of the most important windows in a child’s life in terms of growth and development. In fact, 45% of child mortality under the age of five is from nutrition-related causes.

In Bangladesh, Kenya, Myanmar, Pakistan and Tanzania, our team will focus on encouraging early initiation and exclusive breastfeeding for babies six months and under, and appropriate feeding practices for infants and young children. We’ll do that through gender equality advocacy, training of community health workers, and establishing baby-friendly hospitals.

This mother is visiting a World Vision clinic in Jenya, where she is given information on exclusive breastfeeding, and how to care for her baby.

I love that we can bring education and support similar to some of what I received here in Canada right to moms and babies who might otherwise be struggling. We’re planning to train almost 20,000 caregivers trained on infant and young child feeding and do sensitivity workshops with 4,655 men on gender equality issues related to women’s workload while breastfeeding.

As my own son moves through his teen years, he’s healthy, athletic, and way taller than me. feel so grateful for the breastfeeding support I received here in Canada. And excited to know that even in the world’s poorest places, babies are getting the same chance.

Debbie and her two breastfed babies, now thriving boys who are shooting up by the month.  Derrick is on the left.