While many Lao believe sticky rice is the ideal baby food, health experts say just the opposite. Feeding the glutinous grain to babies can not only result in gastro-intestinal disorders and immune deficiencies but also contribute to malnutrition.
Traditionally, sticky rice, a primary staple in Laos, is offered to spirits and given daily to monks for Buddhist alms. Much of the country’s culture, festivals and rituals centre on planting, harvesting and eating the rice.
According to research supported by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID), sticky rice first chewed by the mother is fed to about 25 percent of infants within the first five months after delivery and for many, as early as the first week of life.
"In the most severe cases, women feed their infants sticky rice immediately after birth in rural areas of Savannakhet,” Phouthong Ratanavong, of the National Centre of Mother and Child Health, told IRIN.
A 2007 article in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition stated that 5 percent of Lao children were never breastfed, and that inadequate breastfeeding contributed to high rates of malnutrition and infant mortality.
“Early complementary food may reduce or terminate their breast-milk intake, may be a source of microbial contamination and interfere in the absorption of essential micronutrients such as iron and zinc,” it stated.
In a bid to counter this, the Lao government, with the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and other international agencies, in September 2009 launched an exclusive breastfeeding campaign.
Exclusive breastfeeding of infants for the first six months prevents infection, provides ample nutrition, and is economical, according to UNICEF.
However, only 26 percent of Lao babies younger than six months are exclusively breastfed, while 70 percent of six- to nine-months old are breastfed with complementary food, the agency says. The Lao Ministry of Health hopes to reach a target goal of 60 percent of women exclusively breastfeeding by the end of 2010.
Photo: Harish Muhthi/SELMA
Working to raise awareness on early child nutrition in Thong Peun District, Bokeo Province
“We’re reminding mothers that adding anything else to their children’s diet – formula, rice, juice, even water – is unnecessary and can be dangerous,” said Khamseng Philavong, a pediatrician at the National Centre of Mother and Child Health, the implementing partner with UNICEF for the campaign.
The campaign targeted 3,000 village-level volunteer “breast milk messengers”, who then pass on the messages to other villagers.
“More efforts should be made to build awareness among the village elders. The mother of the newborn cannot say no to family elders feeding their infants sticky rice,” said Khamseng.
Lai, holding her newborn in the Vilabouly District Hospital in Savannakhet Province, has delivered five children, but one died very soon after birth and another passed away at about three months. She does not link their deaths to feeding them sticky rice.
"We'll go home soon so he can eat sticky rice,” Lai said. “He can have breast milk, too, but if he's really hungry, he needs to eat rice. It helps him sleep.”
Lai considers breastfeeding important, but she and her mother, Bounyong, say it does not provide adequate nourishment. "I encourage my children to feed their children rice if they're hungry," Bounyong said.
According to the UN Development Programme, 37 percent of Lao children under five are underweight. Chronic malnutrition, or stunting, affects 40 percent of children under five.
The Lao Ministry of Health, however, says that overall malnutrition rates are improving – from 405 out of 100,000 people reportedly malnourished in 2005, down to 300 per 100,000 in 2010.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions