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Health Policy Plan. 2001 Jun;16(2):199-205.

Promoting breastfeeding in rural Gambia: combining traditional and modern knowledge.

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  • 1Nutrition Unit, Department of State for Health, The Gambia, Institute for Nutrition Research, University of Oslo, Norway.


Sub-optimal breastfeeding practices still prevail in many countries, especially in traditional rural communities. Despite high breastfeeding initiation rates and long total duration of breastfeeding, exclusive breastfeeding is a rare practice. In the present study, quantitative methods were used to identify current infant feeding practices in 12 rural communities in The GAMBIA: Results indicated that delayed initiation of breastfeeding, prelacteal feeding and failure to practice exclusive breastfeeding were widespread. Qualitative data further indicated that current beliefs and practices were strongly influenced by traditional beliefs and practices. These were kept very much alive by elders, both women and men, including husbands. The results also showed an unexpected support for bottle-feeding from both male and female elders who considered it part of the modernization process. A strategy for promoting early initiation of breastfeeding, feeding of colostrum and exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months in rural communities should therefore incorporate traditional beliefs and practices into modern messages on optimal breastfeeding. Traditional beliefs and practices in the study setting that could be used in this way included knowledge from the population's acquaintance with the newborns of their livestock. It also included the traditional practice of mothers taking their very young children with them when going to work in the fields. The paper suggests such a strategy by developing a matrix to establish linkages between modern and traditional knowledge on a specific practice. Such linkages facilitate the acceptance of recommendations on infant feeding by mothers in these communities. The strategy recommends an expanded target group to include elders and husbands, as the data show that these groups are highly influential in matters regarding patterns of child feeding.

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