Breastfeeding provides children with the best start in life. It is a baby’s best source of nutrition, boosting his or her brain development, with lifelong benefits for the mother and the baby. During the recent floods in Assam – the lifesaving importance of breastfeeding became more apparent.

We know that many families including pregnant, lactating mothers, infants and children were forced from their homes due to the rising flood waters. Leaving them with limited access to food, clean water and sanitation, basic healthcare and other essential services.

Children face multiple threats during such crises, leaving them vulnerable to infectious diseases and severe malnutrition. The impact on infants can affect their overall development, if mothers are unable to breastfeed due to over-crowding in the relief camps.

A simple action like that was taken by Champali Das, an anganwadi worker from the Bhabanipur area in Lower Assam’s Bajali district, can make a world of difference. I met her during a deployment exercise to support Assam State Disaster Management Agency (ASDMA) in camp assessment and monitoring.

Champali had convinced the camp manager to allot her two rooms on the first floor of the school building that was serving as a relief camp, where she arranged a breast-feeding corner for lactating mothers and a playhouse for children to keep them engaged.

“I could see about seven lactating mothers and about 15 children in the age group of six months to six years in the camp. I ensured that a breastfeeding corner is set up along with playhouse for the children so that they can find some normalcy in this situation,” Champali had said.

Equipping healthcare workforce in Assam with the skills to provide quality counselling and practical support to mothers has been a key area of work for UNICEF, especially towards continuity of essential routine services. For this, we have advocated with the Department of Social Welfare, Government of Assam, to issue directives on preparatory and response actions for continuity of nutrition services in adherence to the Infant Milk Substitute Act. This along with the training provided to 300 officials from all districts, have led to anganwadi workers supporting the distribution of dry ration to households, hot cooked meals in relief camps, and also in setting up child-friendly spaces and breastfeeding corners.

UNICEF Assam along with Tezpur University, Assam Medical College and Hospital, and World Vision India, is also providing technical support on flood-response for nutrition (including regular screening for malnutrition, micronutrient supplementation) in 12 districts of Assam. We have shared insights on the status of nutrition services including the need for breastfeeding corners, growth monitoring etc with district authorities after visiting 46 relief camps in the most-affected districts.

Bhabanipur area in newly created Bajali district witnessed unprecedented flood this year. According to ASDMA, 49,402 people including 5,081 children remained affected by this wave of floods in Assam. The district administration had to open 12 relief camps in the district to house the flood affected people. Close to 2,000 including 245 children lived in these relief camps until 24 June.

The initiative taken by Champali holds immense significance considering the fact that early initiation of breastfeeding in the state has decreased from 64 per cent to 49 per cent between 2015-16 and 2019-2020 (NFHS-4 and NFHS-5). Currently, six in 10 (64 per cent: NFHS-5) children are exclusively breastfed in the state in the first six months of life.

Early initiation of breastfeeding (in the first hour of birth), exclusive breastfeeding (between 0-5 months) and continued breastfeeding (6-23 months) offer a powerful line of defense against infection and malnutrition. In contrast, infants who are not fully or partially breastfed have a higher risk of diarrhea and are more likely to die from severe malnutrition if they don’t get lifesaving treatment.  In addition, the mother-baby bond developed during breastfeeding sessions also contributes towards building a child’s cognitive skills and emotional knowledge.

Breastfeeding milk provides all the nutrients babies need until about six months, especially in emergencies, where there is limited access to clean water, electricity and any other foods and drinks that can easily make young children sick. Breastmilk substitutes pose significant health risks to vulnerable infants and should only be provided when all other options have been explored. UNICEF and WHO have issued clear guidelines for parents, care givers and health professionals to ensure safe and appropriate use of formula milks.

During this World Breastfeeding Week, UNICEF Assam is not only looking at the government to prioritize investment in breastfeeding support programmes – as part of the minimum package of health and nutrition interventions, especially in areas facing crises due to floods. But also, towards implementation of family-friendly policies that provide all mothers with time, space and support to breastfeed – this includes providing adequate paid maternity leave to working mothers. And lastly to families and fathers, to provide all mothers with the emotional support to breastfeed.

Dr. Madhulika Jonathan joined as the Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Assam and NE states in September 2019. Prior to this, she served as Chief of Field Office at UNICEF Jharkhand from 2015 – 2019 where she played a lead role in facilitating access of children to essential services and policy for effective UNICEF response for children in difficult circumstances.

Dr. Jonathan’s professional experience spans a wide range of fields including, strategic planning for maternal health and maternal mortality reduction, child rights, policy analysis. and child-centric development programs.
From 2006 to 2015, Dr. Jonathan managed the health portfolio in the Jharkhand field office.

She joined UNICEF as a Health Officer in Bihar Field Office in 2004. Dr. Jonathan holds a Masters’ in Community Medicine (MD) and a degree in Medicine and Surgery (MBBS) from the Christian Medical College, Vellore.

Dr. Madhulika Jonathan

Dr Madhulika Jonathan is the Chief of Field Office for UNICEF Assam and NE states. She is a medical post graduate from the Christian Medical College, Vellore. She began her career in 1994 in a rural...