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Breastfeeding against the odds in Viet Nam

As tour agent Le Huong Giang, 28, bounces her healthy 10-month old son in her lap, she recalls worries, difficulties, and proud accomplishments of the past year and a half. When first pregnant with little Huy, she hadn’t imagined that she could achieve the optimal practice of nourishing her baby for six months with breastmilk only. She had seen many friends fail to reach this goal. It just didn’t seem realistic.

WBWBut then she saw a television advertisement that changed everything. While the cute “talking babies” caught her attention, it was their message that really excited her. Produced by Alive & Thrive, the ad explains the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, and most critically, tells viewers how to access ongoing, personalized counseling and support. Soon Giang was regularly attending counseling sessions with Ms. Thuy at one of over 1,100 “Little Sun” clinics across Viet Nam. These bright and welcoming clinics convene community support groups for pregnant women, mothers, and community leaders focused on breastfeeding, complementary feeding (foods and liquids introduced at six months of age), and child health.

More than one million Vietnamese mothers of children under two years of age have received counseling and breastfeeding support from the Little Sun clinics. During these counseling sessions Giang absorbed as much knowledge as she could about breastfeeding and infant care. Giang became determined to exclusively breastfeed her baby because she understood it would help Huy grow healthy and strong. Her and Huy’s successful journey started within minutes of his birth. Trained health staff made sure she and her baby had skin-to-skin contact, and the newborn started breastfeeding right away.

Soon after returning home, Giang faced the classic woe of breastfeeding mothers, a blocked duct and mastitis. Giang’s immense pain and fever were compounded by concerns over Huy’s weak suckling, which made him hungry and fussy. She was pressured to switch to formula from two influential people in her life: her mother and mother-in-law. In the midst of this difficult time, Ms. Thuy from the Little Sun clinic saved the day. During a home visit, she helped Giang massage the blocked duct and continue breastfeeding. Within two days, mother and baby were back on track, feeling well, and breastfeeding on a normal schedule.

Human Interest Story for World Breastfeeding Week_Picture_Health Staff (004)After four months of exclusive breastfeeding, Giang’s mother-in-law became concerned that the child, although healthy and clever, was not chubby. Again, she pressured Giang to give formula. Giang turned to the Little Sun clinic for advice, and again, Ms. Thuy came for a visit. She counseled Giang’s relatives on the benefits of breastmilk over formula. By the time she left, the whole family was supportive of exclusive breastfeeding. Variations on this story have multiplied across Viet Nam— Little Sun person-to-person counseling and peer support, linked with a mass media campaign, helped produce unprecedented results. In areas of Viet Nam with Little Sun clinics, exclusive breastfeeding rates rose from 19% to 58% in just four years.

But this wasn’t Giang’s last barrier to exclusive breastfeeding. A few weeks later, her grandmother-in-law told Giang that Huy seemed thirsty and he needed water. Giang pulled up the Little Sun website and showed her grandmother-in-law a video clip explaining that a baby does not need water because breastmilk provides everything. Her grandmother-in-law accepted the guidance as credible because it had been shown on television. Encouraged, Giang showed her mother-in-law and grandmother-in-law other videos and even printed articles for them. Ever since, family dialogue about what’s best for Huy includes a new trusted source–the Little Sun website.

The knowledge and skills that Giang received from this effort were critical to her success. Just as important was the psychological and social support she received. In sum, the Little Sun clinic, the Little Sun website, and the mass media campaign encouraged and enabled her to exclusively breastfeed her son for a full six months. And it seems her newfound confidence as an effective and loving mother will continue indefinitely.

Top photo: Le Huong Giang and her son, Huy, playing together.
Photo credit: Alive & Thrive

Second photo: Ms. Doan Thi Thuy, a nurse and Little Sun counselor, prepares for a counseling session on breastfeeding at the Little Sun clinic.
Photo credit: Alive & Thrive