In the many villages scattered across the Kutch district of Gujarat, the age old tradition of feeding newborn infants regularly with jaggery water instead of the mother’s milk continues even to this day.
Amongst the many superstitions prevailing, the most popular ones are tying the tail hair of an animal called ‘Pahodi’ around the neck of the infant to ward off evil spirits, and applying water (instead of breast milk) on the lips of babies to stop them from crying.
Due to a lack of education and exposure to many superstitions, breastfeeding even today is considered a taboo in India’s villages.
Colostrum, the first milk secreted by the mother just after giving birth to her child is considered by many to be unhealthy and ‘bad for consumption.’ Yellowish in color, the sticky substance contains the necessary immune cells, nutrients, vitamin A, sodium and antibodies which have a laxative effect and encourages the passing of the baby’s first stool. The concentration of protein in it is higher than that in normal breast-milk and includes less fats and carbohydrates. Colostrum not only provides the essential nutrients in the right proportion but also boosts the immune system of the newborn baby. Sadly, colostrum is never given to most babies due to the belief that it is unhealthy and too ‘heavy’ to consume.
Despite the many existing social taboos and orthodox behaviours relating to breast feeding, some mothers from the rural belt of Gujarat are taking steps to ensure they are breastfeeding their babies the right way.
Dhaniben along with her husband Dineshbhai Koli from Helipad, a remote hamlet in Rapar taluka of Kutch district welcomed their son Vishal four months ago. Vishal was underweight at 1.8 kilograms at the time of birth.
The Kolis belong to the Koli caste whose main occupation is coal making and daily labour. Dhaniben’s family too are labourers. While on some days Dhaniben sells vegetables, on other days she works on fields. Both Daniben and her husband earn around Rs 100 a day.
It is common for women like Dhaniben to breastfeed only when their babies are awake or crying as they are busy working and are unaware that the baby must be breastfed atleast 8 to 10 times in 24 hours. CRY along with its partner Gram Swaraj Sangh made every effort to ensure that Dhaniben’s baby was breastfed adequately, and the first step in this direction was taking care of the new mother’s diet and rest regime.
Post delivery of baby Vishal, Dhaniben with the help from the GSS team regularly monitored the baby’s progress at the Public Health Centre (PHC) along with the other doctors.
Being labourers, her diet originally comprised of pulses like jowar, bajra, nachni bhakri, tur dal and lentils and was rich in protein. The only addition to Dhaniben’s diet for lactation was a dish called ‘katla’ a mixture of ghee, gum resin, coconut among a few other ingredients is fed to improve the flow of milk for the child.
The mother and the child were called for check-ups once a week until he showed progress. Regular visits by an Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) also helped improve the baby’s health.
Dhaniben further took the initiative of convincing her family that she needed to rest instead of doing excessive physical labour work post delivery. Her family members gradually started heeding her requests and even pitched in to remind her to breastfeed the child at regular intervals.
Four months later, Vishal is a strong and healthy baby of 3.5 kilograms. His health continues to be monitored by anganwadi workers thrice a week.
Another new mother from the same community Shantiben Koli says she too has taken to regularly breastfeeding her child. “I breastfeed my baby atleast 9 times a day. I have been noticing that ever since I started breastfeeding him regularly, he is growing into a healthy and a strong baby. I am also told that my breastmilk will keep him away from sickness, which is why I do not miss out on breastfeeding him even while I am working in the fields,” she says.
Looking at the two, Bhartiben Vaniya too introduced changes in her diet and lifestyle. Although she spends a lot of time working as a labourer in the fields, she makes sure she doesn’t skip her meals and gives attention to her baby as well.
I want to keep my child strong and healthy. I feel it is vital to breastfeed the newborn at least upto 6 months without giving anything else not even water. This will make them strong and immune to any sickness
she says adding that even the older women are observing her behaviour with interest.
“Regular and timely breastfeeding is essential for a child’s health and development. This understanding is developing over time among the people of Kutch. We have taken steps in creating awareness about breastfeeding among the people residing here,” says GSS Project Coordinator Dharmendra Hothi.
GSS has been active in the community since 2017 and educates pregnant and lactating women on the importance of immunisation, exclusive breastfeeding, prenatal and post natal care, healthcare and cleanliness etc in order for both mothers and their infants to adapt a healthy and clean lifestyle. Hothi informs that the team regularly spreads awareness that infants should be breastfed for the first 6 months at least 8 times a day.
“In the past four months alone, GSS with the help of CRY has brought positive changes in the lives of many women. Currently out of 36 women, 23 who delivered babies have breastfed their children regularly,” he informs adding that keeping track of each and every woman is a priority for them.
“We come to know the number of pregnant women in the community in these gatherings through Mamta Diwas (where services pertaining to health of mother and children are provided by the state government) which takes place once every month. Our staff then go door to door and educate them on the many processes to follow to keep their babies healthy, on the importance of breastfeeding their children, and the negative consequences of the superstitions and misconceptions around the practice of breastfeeding,” he continues that all of this has made a considerable difference to the growth and well being of children in the area.
“According to the National Family Health Survey-4 around 50% of infants were breastfed within the first hour of birth in 2015-16, compared to 27% a decade ago. In 2005-06, around 47% of infants received the recommended 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding, while in 2015-16, this increased by a mere 8 percentage points to 55%.
There is a critical need to create more awareness and educate people on breastfeeding. Across our projects in Gujarat and other states where we work on the issue of health and nutrition, CRY through its partners are actively involved in advocating the benefits of breastfeeding. And we are happy to see that such positive changes are taking place,
says Kreeanne Rabadi, Regional Director, CRY-West.
You can help more efforts like this by donating to CRY and its partner organisations here.