This Traditional Lao Food Actually Harming Babies and Breastfeeding in Laos

breast milk and nothing else Laos campaign

My mother tried to convince brand-new postpartum me that my crying newborn was hungry because I wasn’t making enough milk. I would have entirely believed her if I wasn’t so precise in reaching the front door with squirting breast milk from our living room couch. My mom had a bunch of “Lao remedies” at the ready anyway. She would spoon-drop some water into his wailing mouth. She also suggested the most common Lao baby feeding method, regurgitated sticky rice to make him feel full longer. Sticky rice for infants is the Laotian equivalent to what we know as rice cereal in Western culture. The idea is the same as well where the introduction of solid foods will fill out their little bellies. Well, of course, introducing a near-empty food so early can be quite harmful to children’s developing gut and can cause problems such as food allergies, stunted development, and breastfeeding difficulty. The infant mortality rate for Laos is 70 per 1000 with dismal exclusive breastfeeding rates in part to old wives tales and cultural traditions. I myself was fed sticky rice at just 2 days old, exaggerated by my mom but I really think she meant two weeks old (I hope, I pray, oh god). An unsure result of that choice or not, I have battled a lifelong severe food allergy.

My case is different compared to actual infants born and raised and fed in Laos whereas I was born in America. Most children do not survive past the toddler years or have developmental issues past this. To counter this, UNICEF launched an exclusive breastfeeding campaign to areas of Laos to remind new mothers that babies do not need any other food beside breast milk for the first six months. Their goal was to increase the percentage to 60% of Lao women to exclusively breastfeed for six months from within the first hour of birth. Results showed a 10% point increase in 2011/12 compared to 2006 for initiating within hour of birth and a 14% point increase in EBF rate (0-5m) in 2011/12 compared to 2006 for exclusively breastfeeding until six months.

They achieved this mostly through word of mouth and trying to reach “village elders” because any respectable Laotian knows better than to decline an elder feeding their baby the traditional sticky rice. If they were to know better then they would help raise more awareness to the harm, despite the rich tradition. They also were able to distribute their efforts through media such as posters, apparel, and radio spots. My favorite has to be this video set in a rural homestead in the Laos countryside. How cute is this:

What exclusive breastfeeding myths have you heard?

You can find me tweeting my hatred for pants on twitter, filtering the shit outta my kids’ mugs on Instagram, pinning food I’ll never make on Pinterest, and being a SEO creep on Google+

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14 thoughts on “This Traditional Lao Food Actually Harming Babies and Breastfeeding in Laos

  1. I didn’t know the rice contributed to allergies. I do know that in the US a lot of babies are gaining too much weight because people put cereal in the bottle. I’ve also heard people tell small women that their breasts were too small to nurse.

    • To be honest, I don’t know if the rice contributed to my food allergies; that can’t be all true. I think a lot of factors contributed to it. Yes, I have heard all about how my small breasts won’t make enough. Yet, here I am with my A cup! 😉

  2. We have the teas, too; however, I don’t know much about breast feeding myths in my family because I was never, ever around a breast feeding mother growing up. As far as I know, there were only bottle babies for at least two generations until I had my children. My family was all super supportive though, so at least I had that going. There were no attempts to “undermine” the way I chose to feed them. There were suggestions of onion tea and peppermint tea to calm upset tummies, but I just ate the onion and peppermints instead, and did food elimination to figure out what was causing the problem. Because we didn’t supplement with breast milk in bottles I would sit on Mr. S.’s lap to nurse sometimes so he could be touching the babies while they fed, so he wouldn’t feel left out, but we didn’t do this often because we co slept so he got lots of cuddle time in then. Longest sentence in a blog comment, ever?

  3. I don’t know what the culture dictates in my parents’ native Croatia (Yugoslavia back then), and neither did my mom. she didn’t grow up around babies being the youngest, and when she had me she was in the US, alone. she got advice from doctors and nurses who told her to get a shot to dry up and feed formula cuz it’s the thing to do.

    • Wow, that’s pretty extreme. The U.S. culture surrounding breastfeeding misinformation has got to be the saddest and troubling too. 😦

      Isn’t it funny how this would be unheard of in our family’s homeland because it’s the thing to do there? O_0

  4. I was a formula fed baby myself. Things are slowly changing in the capital city here in Laos. My doctors at the hospital encouraged breast feeding.. They even put both my children when they were born on my chest right after birth. Now that my son is 1 I still fight food issues tho, my Lao family just wants to give him boiled rice soup (khaopiak khao) 4 times a day.., Gerry.

  5. Southern black family, in my situation, insisted that my milk wasn’t enough and she needed water because she was hot and “who drinks milk when they’re hot?” Long battle for the duration I nursed her, but I didn’t give up.

    When she did slowly start getting solids at 6 months, they thought it was a free-for-all. “Give her grits. Give her tea. Let her suck on this chicken bone.” Yes, do all if that because it’s not like African-Americans have the highest incidence of hypertension or anything. Oh, wait…

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