The Blog

Superfood for Babies: Breastfeeding Is Key to Saving Newborn Lives in the Developing World

In the UK our healthcare system means we are fortunate to have a choice as to whether or not we breastfeed at all. In Sierra Leone, where one in six children dies before their fifth birthday, this choice can be a matter of life or death.

A handful of leaves mixed with human sweat and untreated water is a frightening cocktail fit for no human being. For a baby living in one the most impoverished parts of the world it is potentially deadly. Yet on a recent visit to the West African country of Sierra Leone this is precisely what I saw being prepared as a replacement for breast milk.

I had been asked to travel to West Africa with Save the Children, a charity that I have become heavily involved with over the last three years, to help launch a new major campaign on breastfeeding.

Of course, it's not always possible for every mother to breastfeed, be it in Sierra Leone or London. But where it is possible, Save the Children says that a child in the developing world is fifteen times less likely to die from preventable diseases like pneumonia and diarrhoea - two of the biggest killers on the planet - if they are breastfed exclusively during the first six months of life.

In the UK our healthcare system means we are fortunate to have a choice as to whether or not we breastfeed at all. In Sierra Leone, where one in six children dies before their fifth birthday, this choice can be a matter of life or death.

My journey began in the remote eastern district of Pujehun - one of the poorest regions of one of the poorest countries in the world. I grew up in a very poor village in Kenya, but even this failed to prepare me for the level of poverty I saw in Sierra Leone. One would need to go back 50 years to find comparable rates of child death in Kenya.

Largely due to a brutal civil war that ravaged the country between 1991 and 2001, nationwide access to modern medicine has been late in coming to Sierra Leone. For generations, traditional herbal healers and birth attendants had been the only source of information to give health advice to mums. Until recently, their advice on matters such as breastfeeding had been scant and sometimes dangerous.

Some of the most worrying elements of the traditional system are the herbs that are frequently given to babies as a replacement for breast milk, which we know is the equivalent of a superfood for babies. I met one such healer called Sallie who showed me how she prepared her own herbs. The recipe is simple but frightening.

It involves a handful of dry leaves from what appeared to be random tree, mixed with untreated water from a local well. Once they are mixed together, Sallie's ritual involved her washing her face, the back of her neck and arms in the mixture before sloshing it in and out of her mouth, 2 or 3 times. Once this process was complete, Sallie served up this 'tea' to new-born babies. As we know the consequences of this are likely to be devastating.

The world, and Africa in general, is making fantastic progress on child health and breastfeeding, but it is practices such as this that show how sorely missed modern health care and education has been in Sierra Leone. The government has recognised the problem and is making great strides with policies for children such as free healthcare, but we must not accept that child death remains very much a part of daily life there.

Few can have suffered as much as forty year old Hannah Jabbie, whose story will haunt me forever. No mother should have to bear the loss of her own child, but Hannah has had to suffer that terrible fate five times. Worse still, Hannah had lost her children to preventable diseases like diarrhoea.

We will never know whether Hannah's loss was to do with Sallie's advice, but is hard to see how it can have helped. As we spoke I watched her dote over her new-born who she had swaddled in her arms- and had a silent prayer that the future would be better for her family this time around.

Hannah is not to blame for what happened to her five children. Her village has no health clinic and no trained health workers. Some of her children were born during the civil war. Hannah has never been to school or received any health education. She simply had no one to turn to in her time of need. I try to imagine the fear she must have felt as her children became sick - is it any wonder she turned to traditional healers like Sallie when no one else was on hand to give her advice?

Simple, trained advice is what can save lives. We need an alternative voice for mothers like Hannah - someone who can spread the message of the benefits of breastfeeding in this instance. That's why Save the Children has been training fantastic Community Health Volunteers throughout Sierra Leone. These respected villagers are trained to give basic health advice and are becoming a new source of lifesaving knowledge to many thousands across the country.

But countries such as Sierra Leone need more help. There is a global shortage of health workers available to deliver lifesaving information. Information like breast milk being a free, natural way to protect new-borns.

95 babies' lives could be saved every hour of every day if all mothers breastfed in the first hour of life. In places where it has been embraced for years, breastfeeding has become as essential as a baby's first inoculation.

Of course, in much of the developing world there are no guarantees. Poverty and poor healthcare are problems that are not easily solved. But a mother's milk in the first precious hours, days and months can give children everywhere the very best chance of leading full and happy lives. Now, that is something I would dearly love to become a tradition.