Because of traditional beliefs and myths, in northeastern Nigeria, mothers think first milk is bad for their babies and do not breastfeed them



On February 17 a year ago, a young woman named Falmata entered the INTERSOS health facility in Bama, northeastern Nigeria.  She was in obvious pain and about to give birth. After being examined and assisted, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Immediately afterwards, however, she refused to breastfeed her. “No, I can’t do that, the first breast milk is harmful to babies,” she told the midwives decisively.


According to the tradition there, the first breast milk is unhealthy and should be pulled and thrown away. Fortunately, after our health staff explained to her and her relatives the importance of breastfeeding the baby from the first hours of life, Falmata was convinced and agreed to breastfeed.  Bulama (community leader), as a powerful figure in influencing culture, was also encouraged to spread the message in the community that refusing to breastfeed infants right away is harmful.


Some cultural and traditional practices, such as depriving the baby of the nutrients contained in breast milk, are risky and pose a great challenge in communities like Bama, Borno State, where we are providing health and nutritional care to mothers and babies. These beliefs have, unfortunately, over time contributed to increased rates of illness and deaths of mothers and children under the age of 5 due to malnutrition and infections.


Raising awareness of childbirth and breastfeeding


Before our arrival, the community had more trust in women who helped deliver their babies at home, rather than professionals working in hospitals. To address this situation, INTERSOS worked with communities and religious institutions to encourage women to trust professional midwives and other health workers to deliver their babies safely.


I am happy that I made it through after two days of prolonged labour. My baby is alive and the breast milk I gave her did her good,” Bawagana of Bulama Zaye in Bama tells the INTERSOS midwife who delivered her twins at the clinic. She is among the women who participated in health education sessions in her community. Today, more than 63% of pregnant women in the community deliver by relying on professional midwives either in a clinic or hospital.


The fear of paying for hospital delivery was another factor that prevented pregnant mothers from accessing health care. We had to be very insistent that Bawagana come to the clinic,” recounted Victory, an INTERSOS nurse. “Before she came here, she didn’t even know she was carrying twins.”


INTERSOS’s intervention


The conflict in northeastern Nigeria, which has been raging for 13 years, is causing many people’s basic needs to increase: they need hygiene-related services, and access to health, food and nutrition-related treatment. Assisting here is particularly difficult, especially because many locations are completely isolated from road transport and aid workers must travel by helicopter to reach communities.


Since September 2019, we have been providing emergency health and nutrition assistance to approximately 114,000 displaced people in more than 99,000 host communities in the local government areas of Ngala, Bama, Dikwa, Magumeri, and Monguno in Borno State. Through our health centres in these locations, INTERSOS has helped improve access to good quality health care for more than 213,000 vulnerable communities affected by the protracted conflict.


In the past year, INTERSOS in Borno State has assisted more than 18,000 women in the pre-and post-partum phases, and we have engaged more than 47,000 women in awareness sessions on pregnancy, safe delivery, and breastfeeding.