IRC nutrition officer Fatima Wakilamtu works in Nigeria, where an estimated 2 million children suffer from severe malnutrition due to conflict and disaster. Malnutrition is caused by a lack of nutrients due to a poor diet or problems absorbing nutrients from food. It has lifelong implications for the child. Therefore, improving a child's access to nutritional food at an early stage is vital.

Woman walking next to brick house
Fatima Wakilamtu, IRC nutrition officer works with mothers and fathers in the community in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria.
Photo: KC Nwakalor for the IRC

Exclusive breastfeeding is one of the ways that nutritionists are supporting parents to improve their child’s health. Breastfeeding provides all the nutritional requirements for a baby up until six months old and contains antibodies that protect against diseases. 

But, despite the benefits of breastfeeding, many mothers face both physical and social challenges. In Nigeria, cultural norms mean that many parents give their infants water, which can cause illness such as diarrhoea—a leading cause of death for children worldwide.

Fatima works with the community to raise awareness and lead educational programmes on breastfeeding through mother-to-mother and father-to-father support groups. 

We spoke to Fatima to find out more.

Why is breastfeeding so important for a baby's health?

Breastfeeding has multiple benefits both physically and emotionally.

Physically, breast milk contains antibodies that protect against disease, especially diarrhoea. It also helps with respiratory infections as breastfeeding lowers the baby's risk of having asthma or allergies. It meets the nutritional needs of infants and aids growth and development, therefore it helps to prevent impaired growth. There are proven long-term benefits, including the reduced risk of obesity and diabetes. Colostrum, the first form of milk produced by the mammary glands, also has a high level of nutrients and protects against illness. 

On the emotional aspect, frequent skin-to-skin contact between mother and infant leads to bonding and social development for the child. 

In addition, breastfeeding helps the baby's jaw and teeth to develop, aiding facial and jaw structure.

Two women sat next to each other: Fatima Wakilamtu and Bilkisu Ahmed with her baby on her lap.
Fatima Wakilamtu, IRC nutrition officer, teaches Bilkisu Ahmed, 29, how to measure her child’s arm using a MUAC tape at her home in Maiduguri, Borno, Nigeria.
Photo: KC Nwakalor for the IRC

How does exclusive breastfeeding protect babies from diseases and malnutrition?

Breastmilk is a complete food for the infant and provides the nutrients needed for the first six months of a child’s life. It also provides all the water that the baby needs. 

Babies who are breastfed exclusively for the first six months, without water, have fewer ear infections, respiratory illnesses, and bouts of diarrhoea because breast milk contains antibodies that help fight off viruses and bacteria. 

Breastfeeding reduces the dangers of dirty feeding bottles with poor hygiene, which often results in underdevelopment and can mean higher infectious disease such as diarrhoea.

Why might a mother not breastfeed their baby?

Exclusive breastfeeding is not very common in the community. According to UNICEF (2021), only 29% of children younger than six months are exclusively breastfed. The need to protect, promote and support breastfeeding in our communities has been widely recognised.

But despite the benefits of breastfeeding, many mothers face challenges. Breastfeeding difficulties are common with many mothers experiencing pain. But there are also some common myths and misconceptions that stop mums from breastfeeding.

One misconception is that babies under six months need extra fluids and water to sustain them. There is also a belief that purchased infant formula is superior to breast milk. Often, infants and young children whose breastfeeding is interrupted won’t meet nutritional needs and they are being exposed to diseases.  

These myths and misconceptions are a setback on breastfeeding practices and harm the growth and brain development of the babies. 

How is the IRC working to change attitudes around breastfeeding?

The IRC’s works with the community to carry out comprehensive counselling and training to mothers and fathers. The aim is to develop behavioural change towards breastfeeding and adopt best practices to reduce malnutrition rates.

Protecting Milestones

The IRC helps parents raise healthy children by providing support groups, training healthcare workers to diagnose and treat malnutrition and providing nutritious meal packs, offering education and more so kids are able to achieve key milestones and reach their full potential.

With every training, every vaccine, and every sachet of Plumpy'nut, another child is given the chance to reach their milestones and another parent is given the joy of seeing that happen.

Last year the IRC treated 161,000 children under five years old around the world for severe acute malnutrition. And In Nigeria alone, the IRC treated 32,000 children under 5 for acute malnutrition last year.

Donate to help children and families in crisis to survive, recover and rebuild their lives–and your donation will be matched by the UK government and a generous IRC donor - meaning your gift will go three times as far.

For every £1 donated to our Protecting Milestones appeal between 3rd May and 3rd August 2022, the UK government will contribute £1 of UK aid to fund a new programme to treat malnutrition in Nigeria, up to £2 million. A generous IRC donor will also match the original donation, meaning your gift will go three times as far. Your support, and the matching funds provided by the UK government, is vital to funding the IRC’s life-changing programs around the world. The funds provided by the UK government will go to a new programme to treat malnutrition in Nigeria.