World Breastfeeding Week: Breastfeeding in Papua New Guinea

In celebration of World Breastfeeding Week, Lactation Matters will post every day this week, highlighting the stories of breastfeeding in different cultures and countries.

Written by Jeralie Fairbanks, RN, IBCLC

In June 2012, I had the opportunity to visit Kudjip Nazarene Hospital in the Western Highlands Province of Papua New Guinea. As a lactation consultant in the United States, I was amazed at how women in Papua New Guinea breastfed and the many cultural differences surrounding infant feeding. There are many spiritual practices that interfere with the initiation of breastfeeding, however, breastfeeding is the only option for most women as formula and milk of any kind are not readily available. If women deliver in a hospital and their newborn is premature, then their newborn can receive formula. There are no breast pumps available in this part of Papua New Guinea so women hand express to feed their premature infants.

Papua New Guineans are tribal oriented, which means that the tribe raises the children. When a woman comes into the hospital for childbirth, she brings family tribe members or village wontoks (clan members) with her. After the baby is born, the family members help to care for the newborn while the mother sleeps and recovers. This entails holding the newborns, swaddling in cloth, or bringing the baby to the mom to breastfeed. Because the infant mortality rate is 43.29 deaths/1,000 live births, many do not initiate bonding with the infant out of fear that the baby might die.

The country of Papua New Guinea is approximately the size of California with a population of 7 million. Access to health care is limited and many women deliver in their village. It is one of the most culturally diverse countries with varying practices related to childbirth and breastfeeding.

While in Papua New Guinea I had the opportunity to visit a health clinic in a village. This clinic had a birthing center that had just opened. There were posters about infant growth and the importance that a baby is weighed monthly. There were, also, pictures demonstrating the importance of maternal nutrition while breastfeeding. I was pleased to see the progress since my last visit in 2008. Although a third-world country, it is progressive.

I taught at the School of Nursing in Kudjip and stressed the importance of skin-to- skin at birth and initiating breastfeeding within the first hour. The students in the School of Nursing were very receptive and interested in this and were talking with patients about what they had learned the next day in the hospital setting. It was encouraging to know that all that is needed is education to provide an improvement in outcomes.

Women in Papua New Guinea have no difficulty breastfeeding in public as that is simply what the breasts are for. Babies are carried in bilums on either the mom’s or family wontok’s back. And babies are breastfed on demand. It was exciting to be able to provide an IBCLC’s viewpoint and positively impact initiation of skin-to-skin and breastfeeding at Kudjip Nazarene Hospital.

Jeralie Fairbanks RNC, IBCLC is a Labor and Delivery Nurse at Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, OR where she enjoys assisting families with their first breastfeed and those first few days.  She is married and has two sons ages 12 & 9. She has a passion for missions and has had the opportunity to travel to the Nazarene Seo Company Hospital in Kudjip, Papua New Guinea twice.

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