When Branka Stamenkovic gave birth to her first child in Serbia, the experience was traumatic. Minutes after the baby was born, nurses bundled up the infant and whisked him away, separating the mother and child for three days.
When they returned, the nurses gave Stamenkovic a cursory lesson in breastfeeding and sent the pair on their way.
Stamenkovic detailed her experience in a blog in 2008 that triggered an outpouring of similar stories from women across Serbia.
It unwittingly lit the spark for a Unicef campaign that has turned the country into a leading example of how to boost early breastfeeding rates.
“I published over 700 stories online, and this is how Unicef actually learned about the sad state of affairs of the baby-friendly programme in Serbia,” she said.
The UN children’s agency had first launched its “baby-friendly hospital initiative” in Serbia in the 1990s.
But after it handed the programme over to the government in the early 2000s, breastfeeding rates plummeted to eight per cent in 2010.
The UN agency pointed to the stories on Stamenkovic’s blog to make a case for re-booting the initiative.
By 2014, the percentage of women breastfeeding within the first hour after birth was back up to 51 per cent — a leap unseen among other middle and low-income countries.
The World Health Organization and Unicef — who are marking World Breastfeeding Week until August 7 — have long pushed for mothers to breastfeed babies during their first six months of life, starting within the first hour after birth.
Breast milk produced during those early days is especially rich in nutrients and antibodies, boosting infants’ chances of survival by protecting them from infections.
But health experts must battle a multi-billion dollar baby formula industry that aggressively advertises breast milk substitutes to mothers from day one. Global debate over the issue was revived last month when a US delegation reportedly tried to water down a WHO resolution that called for the promotion of breastfeeding.
The early form of breast milk, known as colostrum, “is the best food that a human being can ever get,” said Djurdjica Cecez, a neonatologist at Belgrade’s Narodni Front maternity hospital. Cecez said Serbia has made impressive gains in promoting early breastfeeding. Today, in order to be accredited, Serbian maternity hospitals must meet the “baby-friendly” guidelines that promote immediate skin-to-skin contact between mother and child after birth, breastfeeding within the first hour and support to keep up the practice. — AFP