As Le Huong Giang, 28, bounces her healthy 10-month-old son in her lap, she recalls her breastfeeding worries and proud accomplishments from the past year. While pregnant, she was worried she would not be able to feed Huy only breast milk for the first 6 months of his life.
Her views began to change, however, when she saw a television advertisement months before giving birth. Produced by a programme known as “Alive & Thrive”, the ad showed cute babies “talking” about the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding and told mothers how they could access breastfeeding support.
After seeing the ad, Giang started attending counselling sessions with Doan Thi Thuy, a nurse at An Hai Bac Health Commune Station and counsellor at Little Sun Clinic. As part of Alive & Thrive, the clinic provides breastfeeding and child health support groups for pregnant women and mothers.
When time came to deliver her son, Giang knew what to do to give her newborn the best start at life. With the help of trained health staff, she put Huy to her breast and he immediately started nursing.
“I feel so thankful that I breastfed him,” says Huong Giang.
Creating a supportive community
Alive & Thrive, a programme managed by FHI 360 and funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, was launched in Viet Nam in 2009 to improve breastfeeding rates. In 2009, fewer than 20% of babies in Viet Nam were exclusively breastfed until they reached 6 months, as recommended by WHO.
“Breastmilk is all the child needs,” says Roger Mathisen, programme director for Alive & Thrive in Southeast Asia. “But many mothers believed they did not produce enough milk and as a result gave their infants water, formula and food prior to reaching 6 months of age.”
Additionally, women in the workplace often did not have enough maternal protection from their employers and not all health workers were convinced of breastmilk’s nutritional benefits.
In partnership with the Vietnamese Ministry of Health, UNICEF and other organizations, Alive & Thrive developed advertisements, organized support groups in more than 1100 Little Sun Clinics, and trained community workers in infant and young child feeding.
By 2014, the programme had reached more than 2.3 million mothers of children under the age of 2, through mass media, community support groups and counselling at health facilities. More than 85% of mothers surveyed said they had seen the campaign’s breastfeeding messages. As a result, exclusive breastfeeding rates increased to 62%, in Alive & Thrive intensive areas.
“Mass media had a huge impact on mothers. Most of them got solid basic knowledge from the ads and tried to practice the recommendations,” says Thi Thuy. “Those who came to the clinic for vaccination during the fourth month of pregnancy would come back again and again for further counselling sessions on breastfeeding and complementary feeding.”
Viet Nam’s government also created a supportive environment for breastfeeding through banning advertising of breastmilk substitutes marketed for children under 24 months—as recommended in WHO’s International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes. The government has increased paid maternity leave from 4 to 6 months and many employers set up lactation rooms.
“It was the synergy of all components of this project and the support from so many partners, that worked to change Viet Nam’s behaviour and attitude towards breastfeeding,” says Jean Baker, Director of the Alive & Thrive Programme.
Supporting mums worldwide to breastfeed
Globally, an estimated 1 in 3 infants under 6 months are exclusively breastfed – a rate that has not improved in 2 decades. If all children 0-23 months were optimally breastfeed, more than 800 000 children under 5 could be saved every year.
WHO and UNICEF are leading a global Breastfeeding Advocacy Initiative to increase political commitment for breastfeeding, so that rates of exclusive breastfeeding will improve to at least 50% by 2025.
The Initiative encourages governments to implement the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, enact family leave and workplace policies, and improve access to lactation counselling and community networks – all components of the Alive & Thrive programme in Viet Nam.
“Breastfeeding is one of the smartest investments a country can make,” says Laurence Grummer-Strawn, technical officer in the WHO Department of Nutrition for Health and Development. It’s the best start any mother can give her child. That’s why WHO is supporting efforts to help mothers to breastfeed anytime, anywhere.”
During World Breastfeeding Week, 1-7 August, WHO is encouraging everyone to do their part to support breastfeeding mothers.