Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Breastfeeding in Haiti: What is it really like?

After the tragic earthquake that struck Haiti, there seemed to be a ton of chaos and disorganization amongst the various aid organizations working in the region. Of course initially myself and other lactivists discouraged people from sending formula donations to Haiti. Haiti, we said, has a breastfeeding culture and we don't want to do anything to disrupt that. In fact, soon there was an urgent call for donations of breast milk to Haiti to help babies whose mothers had died or couldn't be located. Shortly after we found out that the breast milk that did make it to Haiti was never used and that aid organizations didn't really want it anyway. Although that was disappointing, I was very pleased when UNICEF created Baby Tents in Haiti, where moms could go and have a safe, clean place to nurse and relax with their babies.

Most Americans don't really know much about Haiti and what I heard over and over again from people, particularly in the rabid comments section on blogs that talked about breast milk donations, was that to discourage formula donations was selfish and elitist of us. But was it really? As many lives as breastfeeding saves in a developed nation like the United States, can you imagine the health implications in a place like Haiti?

Last week I stumbled across an excellent blog post, written by an expat named Gwen who lives in Haiti with her husband and three kids, one of whom they adopted from Haiti. In this post she discusses the complex social issue that is breastfeeding in Haiti. Apparently although there is a culture of breastfeeding in Haiti, there are also a lot of myths and superstitions that prevent babies from being nursed. Some of these myths include colostrum is poisonous, mother's milk is easily spoiled and turned poisonous by any personal trauma and baby must be immediately weaned, and that breastfeeding can cause mental illness. Another problem is one we see here in the US as well. Gwen writes:

Okay, now onto a whole OTHER side of the issue—the “free” factor. Generally in Haiti (and I don’t have a quote to back this up, but I do have TONS of anecdotal evidence) when you give something away people will generally want it, but there’s a perception that something free is insuperior to something you have to pay for. This is why many clinics (even for the very poor) will charge a very nominal fee for medical care. For some reason, it seems that Haitians feel that something they pay for is worth more. Therefore, it is reasoned by many that if you have to PAY for formula, it MUST be better than breastmilk, which is free. And so therefore, it also becomes very much a social status thing. People who can afford formula usually will give this to their babies rather than breastfeeding them.This presents TONS of problems. Especially in a country like Haiti (or really any developing country) where people see starving children and want to “help.” Therefore, (get ready for a big generalization) white people come in with their week-long “white people clinics” (as a fellow ex-pat here calls them) and give out free formula to babies who are malnourished.
Of course buying formula is not really a sustainable option for the average Haitian family. In fact, Gwen states that formula is actually more expensive in Haiti than it is in the US, almost double the cost. The cost of formula can drain even a middle class family in the US, imagine having to buy formula when you live below the poverty line and there is no WIC. With such a complex issue there are no easy answers, but Gwen recommends donating to two charities that are doing wonderful work with mothers and babies in Haiti, Olive Tree Projects and Heartline Ministries.
I highly recommend you click over and read the entire post because it's really filled with excellent information about the cultural barriers to breastfeeding for Haitian women. And if you can, continue to donate to Haiti. It's been a while since it was on the forefront but the people there will need help rebuilding their country for years to come.

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