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Helping Indonesian mothers keep their babies healthy

Indonesia, December 8, 2010

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Ragil with her three-month-old son. She is using exclusive breastfeeding with this baby, after learning about the benefits through Mercy Corps' Healthy Start program. Photo: Fitria Rinawati/Mercy Corps
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  <span class="field-credit">
    Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps  </span>
    The Healthy Start program is helping mothers and their babies in some of Jakarta's poorest neighborhoods, such as the seaside fishing village of Cilincing. Photo: Thatcher Cook for Mercy Corps

Although I am saddened by the most recent disasters to hit my native Indonesia, I am excited about the strong energy and compassion that my colleagues are committing to the cause of early and exclusive breastfeeding. Mercy Corps recently sponsored a conference here in Jakarta in which representatives from 15 Asian countries called for an end to excessive promotion of baby formula promotions in favor of more breastfeeding — which has proven to be a healthier alternative for babies and their mothers.

Just here in Indonesia, malnutrition caused by improper use of baby formula is responsible for more than 30,000 deaths each year. This heartbreaking number could go way down if more mothers turned to breastfeeding, which is free and creates a lifelong bond between mother and child.

But unfortunately, as it stands, the practice of exclusive breastfeeding is going down in this region — and more aggressive advertising and promotion of baby formula is one major reason why. One health survey here in Indonesia says that consumption of baby formula has increased from 15 percent in 2003-2004 to 30 percent in 2007. During the same time period, the number of babies who were exclusively breastfed dropped from 40 percent to 30 percent. And the child mortality rate here in Indonesia has reached a crisis point: three percent of babies won't live to reach their first birthday.

This high number can be reduced by teaching more mothers how to breastfeed, reducing the social stigma that many feel and creating groups of breastfeeding mothers that will be able to help others withstand the influence and pressure of baby formula advertisements.

Four years ago, Mercy Corps created a program called Healthy Start to promote the benefits of breastfeeding to Indonesian women. We've trained hundreds of local health officials and midwives on the importance of the practice, and brought thousands of women together to encourage and support each other.

Here's what we've been able to do so far through the Healthy Start program in particularly poor neighborhoods of North Jakarta:

  • The percentage of babies put to breast within one hour following birth increased from 18% to 65%
  • The percentage of babies 0-5 months who exclusively breastfeed within the last 24 hours increased from 29% to 36%
  • The percentage of children between 0-23 months who received food/fluids other than breastmilk within three days after birth decreased from 62% to 35%
  • 67 of 108 registered public and private health facilities have made progress toward baby-friendly health facilities

Although we have seen success in turning the tide from excessive use of baby formula back to breastfeeding, we have a long way to go. It all starts with teaching mothers how to breastfeed, giving them ongoing support and creating mother and child groups that will keep the encouragement going.

You can help us save children's lives this holiday season through the gift of breastfeeding classes. Thank you for your support of mothers and their babies here in Indonesia.