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Is Reducing Malnutrition as Easy as Helping Mom and Baby Connect?

Mother and Child at Food for the Hungry feeding center in Guatemala

Did you know that 2.7 million Guatemalans are affected by food insecurity, and 43 percent of children under the age of 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition?

At Food for the Hungry (FH) we’re working to reduce those numbers, and a new FH program for new mothers in Guatemala is intended to head off malnutrition in young children. And the really exciting part? The key lies in the heart of the connection between a mother and her baby.

The program was developed in partnership with the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute, a division of the University of North Carolina’s School of Public Health and funded by a U.S. government grant from the Technical and Operational Performance Support (TOPS) program, which is dedicated to excellence in food security programming and is the first of its kind.

Before the program began, FH health and nutrition staff noticed that many mothers in rural Guatemala would carry their babies on their backs or leave the baby in a hammock, making it easy for them to miss subtle cues that the baby is feeling hungry. For example, a baby typically sucks her fist when she wants to nurse.

“Often, the baby gets to the point of being so upset that he/she has a difficult feeding session,” Karen Calani, FH’s health and nutrition coordinator in Guatemala explains. “The baby is frustrated and won’t nurse as long, or they give up early, which is particularly bad if the baby was born early or has low birth weight. They need every ounce of milk they can get!”

From the start, babies are communicating, but when a new mom isn’t tuned in to those cues, the result can be confusing and frustrating for mom and baby.

That’s where FH Guatemala’s Reading and Responding to Your Baby care group program comes in. Beginning in September of last year, groups of moms with infants and toddlers in rural Guatemala began meeting to learn more about understanding their baby’s hunger cues and techniques for more successful breastfeeding sessions.

FH workers trained Guatemalan volunteers in understanding infant behavior such as feeding cues, how to respond when your baby has difficulty breastfeeding, when to introduce age-appropriate solid foods, and how to encourage cheerful mealtimes. For example, babies and toddlers are more likely to finish their meal if a parent or caregiver sits with them while they eat. Eating is meant to be a time for connection, and it seems that even from a very young age, our children know that.

The volunteers then take what they have learned and share with a group of eight to twelve mothers in either group meetings or one-on-one home visits. The volunteers also make regular home visits during the first month of life to help first-time-moms recognize hunger related behaviors and cues and to address any breastfeeding concerns. The care groups give mothers the opportunity to talk to one another about difficulties with meal times and breastfeeding—a value that any new parent can appreciate.

International breastfeeding expert Miriam Labbok, MD, MPH, IBCLC, director and professor at the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute, explains that by empowering a mother’s ability to recognize and respond to baby’s feeding cues, and by strengthening the emotional bonds between mother and baby, the program can contribute to improved breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices.

The training program teaches mothers that newborns begin to communicate their needs immediately after they are born and that each baby is a gift from God meant to be cared for and responded to in love.

“Over time, babies will be able to communicate more and more,” the training material reads. “Our job as caregivers is to listen to what our babies are trying to tell us, to recognize what need or feeling they are expressing, and to respond to our babies’ needs and feelings with love.”

“There’s been a lot of evidence in early child development that suggests that cue recognition – focusing on acknowledging needs – rather than being controlling or laissez faire – is useful in cognitive and language development and for nutrition,” Calani shares. “It does promote weight gain and physical development in children.”

While the pilot program for Reading and Responding to Your Baby is just wrapping up, our hope at FH is that it will be easily replicated around the world where mothers of infants are facing struggles in breastfeeding and meal times because they don’t have access to personal help and training.

“We believe this program will lead to a decrease in global and chronic malnutrition as mothers find greater success in one of the most natural and nutritionally sound ways to care for infants worldwide,” said Dr. Labbok.

Learn more about what FH staff is doing in Guatemala or find out how you can help with FH’s innovative programs.