30 September 2014

Breast is best: how Uran-Erdene got the best start in life

Uran-Erdene is a healthy and joyful 11-month year old girl. With her two little ponytails and chubby cheeks, she bounces back and forth between her parents laps. She is the youngest of three girls and, according to her mother Sarantugs, she is also the healthiest. Sarantugs believes this is because she exclusively breastfed Uran-Erdene for six months after birth. 

Uran-Erdene's happy when breastfeeding
@UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Ariunzaya Davaa
“I was only 22 when I had my first child,” Sarantugs says. “I was inexperienced and believed the TV adverts about infant formula, so I fed her breast milk substitute almost immediately after birth. At the time, she looked chubby and seemed healthy, so I thought I was doing the right thing. Now I know that infant formula cannot replace breast milk.”

By the time of her second child, Sarantugs knew that breastfeeding was best for a baby’s health. But her daughter was born with a cleft lip which prevented her from breastfeeding. “However, after talking to my family doctor I decided to exclusively breastfeed my youngest,” Sarantugs continues. “I am very glad that I did. You can really see the difference. Uran-Erdene is much healthier than her sisters and rarely gets sick.”

Sarantugs, 29, and her husband Sukhgerel, 34, live with their three daughters in a house owned by Sukhgerel’s brother in Nalaikh, one of nine districts of Ulaanbaatar. An hour’s drive away from the city lights of central Ulaanbaatar across plain steppes, the industrial district of Nalaikh is in practical terms a small town all to itself. Sukhgerel works in IT but doesn’t have a regular income, and the family sometimes struggles financially.

Daughters Namuun-Erdene, Uranbileg and Uran-Erdene
@UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Andy Brown
Medical support

While pregnant with Uran-Erdene, Sarantugs had a pre-natal appointment with the family doctor, Dinara, who advised her to exclusively breastfeed her child for six months and continue breastfeeding with complimentary food until she is two years old.

Dinara explained the health benefits of exclusive and continued breastfeeding, and the risks of artificial feeding. Artificially fed babies are at greater risk of disease, including allergies, diabetes, leukemia, respiratory infections, and sudden infant death syndrome. By contrast, breastfed babies are at lower risk of all of these diseases, and also have better brain development. 

Dinara is one of 60 family doctors and nurses in Nalaikh who have been trained on community-based infant and young child feeding counselling as part of Mongolia’s national nutrition strategy. The training was conducted by the Government with support from UNICEF. The doctors and nurses advise pregnant women and new mothers like Sarantugs on the health benefits of breastfeeding and the risks of breast milk substitute, countering the misinformation they see in formula adverts on TV.

Declining trend

According to a national survey conducted by UNICEF and the Government, breastfeeding rates in Mongolia are decreasing. Sarantugs is one of 47 percent of women in Mongolia who exclusively breastfed their child for six month. Four years ago, this number was 60 per cent.

Even though current breastfeeding rates in Mongolia are higher than the global average, we are very concerned by the declining trend,” says Munkhjargal, UNICEF Mongolia Nutrition Specialist. ”The reasons for this decline vary from lack of support from family or workplaces to growing poverty which forces mothers to go back to work soon after giving birth.”

One of the main reasons for declining breastfeeding rates is heavy advertisement of breast milk substitutes. “The current law on marketing of breast milk substitutes is too weak to control the market,” Munkhjargal continues. “The Government has agreed to update the law, but we have yet to see significant action on this. UNICEF Mongolia will be working closely with the Ministry of Health to revise several articles in the current law.”

Another factor that influenced Sarantugs to breastfeed her youngest child was financial. Buying breast milk substitute for their first two daughters put the family under a heavy financial burden. Living far from the city centre made it hard to get baby food at local stores. They had to drive to the city frequently as their small income did not allow them to buy products in bulk.

Uran-Erdene loves playing with her father
@UNICEF Mongolia/2014/Andy Brown
Now that she is breastfeeding, the family has been able to buy quality food for everyone, especially for the mother. “If I eat well, I can breast feed our child. It is much more cost-effective to buy good food for ourselves than to buy breast milk substitute” explains Sarantugs.

“Now that I know and see the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding myself, I always recommend it my pregnant friends. It is never too late. I started on my third child, and my girl is healthy and happy” says Sarantugs, smiling at her daughter as she feeds happily.

The author
Ariunzaya Davaa is Communication Specialist at UNICEF Mongolia


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