Against the odds: Breastfeeding in Bangladesh

When infants with diarrhoea are brought to icddr,b’s Dhaka Hospital, their mothers are routinely referred to a free breastfeeding counselling service. This little-known and unique clinic has served new mothers for more than 20 years, and it supports more than 50 women every week to breastfeed their children, bringing benefits to both mom and baby.

Like many mothers in Dhaka, when Rubaba’s* son fell ill with diarrhoea, she brought him to icddr,b’s Dhaka Hospital for treatment. The Dhaka Hospital provides free-of-charge care to any patient with diarrhoea, which is primarily caused by eating unsafe food or drinking dirty water.

But Rubaba’s baby was under six months of age, which means that he should have been fed only breast milk. His diarrhoea was therefore a special cause for concern—exclusive breastfeeding is recommended by the World Health Organization for all babies from birth to six months—so Rubaba, along with about 50 other mothers each week, was referred to icddr,b’s free breastfeeding clinic, which is housed in the main building of the hospital.

Breastfeeding counsellor Bithika is pictured, in the middle, with a hospital attendant, on the right, on her daily rounds to invite mothers with young infants to counselling

The clinic, which operates seven days a week, is run by two women: Parvin and her colleague Bithika (pictured above, in the middle). They visit mothers with babies being treated for diarrhoea every morning at around 11 am to invite them for counselling. The clinic offers both one-on-one sessions as well as group counselling. According to Parvin, theirs is the only facility in Dhaka to offer re-lactation therapy, for mothers whose milk has dried up or for babies who never learned how to suckle.

Counsellor Parvin is pictured, right, educating new mother Rubaba on the correct position for holding her baby when breastfeeding

Women stop breastfeeding for many different reasons. Rubaba (pictured above, on the left) gave her baby crushed tulsi leaves as a traditional remedy for the cold, but this gave him diarrhoea. At the same time, she had a painful infection in her breast, so she assumed that her breast milk was the cause of her child’s sickness and started feeding him infant formula instead.

“The women that we treat are very vulnerable because they are often young and under-educated,” says Parvin, “They are also under pressure from their families to use traditional healers and they believe local superstitions about breastfeeding. Some women think having an overflow of breast milk can make the baby sick, for example, or that if the baby cries a lot it means that the mother is not producing enough breast milk.”

The baby pictured above fell sick because his mother fed him dirty water. She thought that he was crying because he was thirsty, but he actually had colic, a common gastrointestinal problem.

The work being done by the breastfeeding clinic is doubly important because it both helps to prevent babies getting sick with diarrhoea and supports and educates the mothers in breastfeeding best practices. “There are not many counselling services in Bangladesh,” says Parvin, “But in this clinic we can listen to these women and provide them with mental support. We build their confidence so that they know how to properly breastfeed and take care of their children.”

icddr,b has paired up with Defeat DD, a PATH initiative, to celebrate World Breastfeeding Week 2015. Some of the content displayed on this page is also contained in a blog post on the Defeat DD website.

*Name has been changed in the interest of privacy