Breastfeeding in Ghana: Statistics, Misconceptions and Formula

Beautiful mural from my neighborhood of a breastfeeding woman.

Since I returned to Ghana with our daughter, I have gotten many comments about me breastfeeding her. Most often, I am met with surprise, raised eyebrows and reassuring comments such as “you have done well!” Many of these reactions seem to come out of the misconception that “white people do not breastfeed”. Nothing could be more wrong!

In my native Sweden, there is extensive education on breastfeeding both for parents-to-be in preparatory courses and at the hospital when your infant is just born. Breastfeeding is highly encouraged, and initially 97% of mothers breastfeed. When the baby is 2 months 88% breastfeed partially and 69% exclusively. At 6 months the share of breastfeeding mothers is at 65% (Statistics from Swedish national board for health and welfare for children born 2009. Additionally, there is stats for babies’ breastfeeding of 9 months as well as 12 months!)

Surviving Life in Sweden blog (written by an American in Sweden) has some experience on breastfeeding and is surprised how openly Swedish mothers feed their children:

“In Sweden, the attitude toward the boob is different. Seriously, they are everywhere – in often very non-sexual ways – and it’s not a big deal. You will be stared at if you wear a nursing burka USA style. If you are shy and your child will oblige lay a small cloth over your shoulder/baby – but nothing dramatic. And no – it’s not because Swedish ladies want the world to see their boobs, it’s because they just wanted to keep their baby fed and not be chained to the house all day.”

I guess this goes to say that when it comes to attitudes on breastfeeding, there are also differences in the Global north.

Moving onto the attitudes to breastfeeding in Ghana: some of the Ghanaians I have talked to about this topic have informed me of a new trend in Ghana where Ghanaian mothers do not breastfeed their children. Some not at all, some very briefly.

I was surprised when I heard this, had I not seen many mothers feeding their children in Ghana? When water security is a problem, why not breastfeed? I decided to do some research and realized this is not a new trend, but a major health problem for Ghana. The Linkages Project summarizes the situation like this:

“Nearly all mothers initiate breastfeeding in Ghana. However, sub-optimal breastfeeding practices begin on the first day. Only 25 percent of women initiate breastfeeding within the first hour after birth. Approximately 20 percent of mothers nationwide practice exclusive breastfeeding for the recommended period of the first six months. The low rate of exclusive breastfeeding is largely due to the introduction of water and other liquids at an early age. The Ghana Health Service estimates that sub-optimal breastfeeding practices contribute to about eight percent of infant deaths or about 3,300 infant deaths each year.”

Only 20% of mothers breastfeed exclusively? I continued my search and found some more assuring data. According to World Bank data the rate of mothers practicing exclusive breastfeeding to children under six months is 62,8%. However, considering that this number likely comes from health providers and the indicator on children under 5 seeing a health practitioner is only half the population or 51%, the 20% stated above might sadly be about accurate.

The good news is that education really seem to help. The Linkages Project reports big jumps in numbers of breastfeeding mothers after sensitization.The Breastfeeding Week (!) might also help bring awareness. So education seems to be step one.

But one friend was insisting that also well-educated Ghanaians refrain from breastfeeding. Can an explanation to this behavior can be found in the relatively short Ghanaian maternity leave of three months? Compare with the recommended breastfeeding time of 6 months and you see the discrepancy.

Or are there other reasons? Vanity (“I do not want stretched out breasts”), corporate miseducation (“formula is better”) or something else?

What do you think?