The Keys to Improving Infant Nutrition in Democratic Republic of the Congo

The Keys to Improving Infant Nutrition in Democratic Republic of the Congo

 {Photo credit: DRC-IHP/MSH.}A healthy, exclusively breastfed, five-month old Ataadji and mom, Thérèse. In two months, his weight increased from six to sixteen pounds.Photo credit: DRC-IHP/MSH.

This post is part of the  blog and event series on proven, impactful practices that are advancing maternal, newborn, and child survival. The series is sponsored by MSH, Jhpiego, and Save the Children.

At three months old, Thérèse’s baby boy Ataadji was malnourished and unhealthy, weighing in at only six pounds. Within two months, Ataadji had transformed into a thriving, healthy baby boy and his weight had nearly tripled. The keys to this success? An Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) support group and exclusive breastfeeding.

Early breastfeeding is critical for newborn and maternal health. It serves as the baby’s “first vaccination,” providing an initial boost to the baby’s immune and digestive systems; promotes early skin-to-skin contact between mother and baby; reduces post-partum hemorrhage; and more.

Across the Sud Kivu, Katanga, Kasaï Oriental, and Kasaï Occidental provinces of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), only two percent of newborns were breastfed within the first hour of their birth in 2011. Ninety-eight percent of newborns were missing out on the benefits of early breastfeeding—making them more susceptible to malnutrition, illness, and other health and nutrition problems in the future.

Since 2010, MSH has worked across these four provinces, which constitute nearly 20 percent of DRC’s population, to improve maternal, newborn, and child health and nutrition. Through the USAID-funded Integrated Health Project (IHP), MSH supported and promoted optimal early breastfeeding practices, and by September 2014, 96 percent of newborns in the four provinces were breastfed within the first hour of their birth.

Two key interventions have helped IHP achieve these impressive results:

Building Support for New Moms at the Community Level

IHP’s biggest success is the integration of IYCF promotion into communities, particularly through creating and supporting IYCF support groups—which did not exist prior to IHP. These groups share positive breastfeeding experiences and benefits; supervise and coach mothers; conduct cooking demonstrations with local foods and provide nutrition education to women and their families; and host meetings in convenient, easily accessible locations. It is through one of these groups that Thérèse received the training and continued support she needs for Ataadji. By training health zone management teams, service providers, community health workers, and other trusted health providers in IYCF, IHP has established 1,080 IYCF support groups, to date, reaching women and their families in 45 health zones within the four provinces.

Implementing Policy Change at the National Level

Working with the Ministry of Health, IHP facilitated the development of a national breastfeeding policy directing all health workers in DRC to help mothers breastfeed their newborns within an hour of giving birth. IHP then took the directive one step further working to circulate and implement this policy change in health centers and hospitals around the country. With 85 percent of all deliveries in DRC occurring in health facilities, this directive is reaching women and helping them adopt early, optimal breastfeeding practices.

Through community- and national-level interventions, IHP is successfully increasing the number of women adopting early, optimal breastfeeding in DRC, and is committed to fighting all forms of malnutrition and promoting good nutritional practices. IYCF groups continue to improve the health and nutrition of infants, children, and pregnant and nursing women as rates of early breastfeeding increase; cases of malnutrition, childhood diarrhea, and fever decrease; and community relationships and health systems are strengthened.

Looking to the future, these highly-effective, low-cost interventions can easily be adopted across DRC and in other fragile states to save more babies like Ataadji.

Michele Alexander contributed to this content.