Celebrating World Breastfeeding Week in El Quiché, Guatemala: Cultural and Gender Perspectives

The Health Area of El Quiché, with support from the Nutri-Salud project, is celebrating World Breastfeeding Week with a one-day conference for health workers. Breastfeeding and complementary feeding are the conference's main topics, but issues of gender and Mayan culture will be infused throughout the discussions. Angela Cotoc, Nutri-Salud's gender and K'iche' expert (K'iche' is both a language and a Mayan people), will discuss breastfeeding as a beneficial Mayan practice, as an equalizer that gives every child the best start in life and as the right of every woman. Other experts will provide evidence-based recommendations for optimal breastfeeding: initiation within one hour of birth, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months, and continued breastfeeding with adequate complementary feeding for two years or beyond.

The conference will showcase moringa and ixbut, two traditional plants reputed to be galactagogues.1 Moringa (Moringa Oleifera), native to sub-Himalayan areas, is also grown in Peten, Guatemala, and its leaves, bark, flowers, fruit, seeds, and roots are used to make a wide variety of medicines. It is used to increase breast milk production and as a nutritional supplement or tonic. Because it is easy and inexpensive to grow, and because the leaves retain vitamins and minerals when dried, moringa is often used in nutrition programs in India and Africa to fight under-nutrition. Its immature green pods are prepared in the same manner as green beans, while the seeds, when removed from more mature pods, can be cooked like peas or roasted like nuts. The leaves are cooked similarly to spinach or dried and powdered for use as a vitamin-rich condiment. Agricultural Engineer Carlos Flores Salazar, an expert in the production and use of moringa, will describe the plant's properties and will demonstrate how to plant, process and cook it. Following the cooking demonstration, participants will be able to taste the sample dishes.

Ixbutte, a tea made from the local Mayan herb ixbut, promotes the production of breastmilkThe project's nutritionist, Karin Morales, will talk about the use of ixbut (Euphorbia lancifolia Schlecht)2 to promote the production of breast milk and its use in the maternity ward of El Quiché Departmental Hospital to address perceptions of insufficient milk.3 An herbal tea made of ixbut leaves has been used for centuries by postpartum Mayan women in Guatemala to stimulate and increase the flow of breast milk. To date, ixbut's active ingredient has never been isolated. However, this medicinal herb is believed to be a natural galactagogue of Guatemalan origin and is now commercialized in the country under the name of Ixbutté (ixbut tea).

El Quiché's World Breastfeeding Week celebration will also feature a photography contest, for which health workers will exhibit photographs from their work to protect, promote and support breastfeeding. A jury will select the best pictures and present awards to the winners. Moringa seeds and ixbut seedlings will be distributed to all El Quiché health services for planting in their demonstration gardens to promote their production and use. The local media have been invited to disseminate information from the conference to a wider audience.

[1] A substance that promotes lactation in humans and animals.
[2] Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University, 26 (1978) 277–309.
[3] A mother's ability to breastfeed becomes jeopardized mostly by interruptions in the natural processes, by stress, by wrong advice and by negative cultural beliefs and practices.

Mother breastfeeds her baby, the Highlands, Guatemala. Photo courtesy of USAID Nutri-Salud Project
Mother breastfeeds her baby, the Highlands, Guatemala. Photo courtesy of USAID Nutri-Salud Project
August 01, 2014
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