Illustration: Trembelat

‘The way we were raised’ is not backed by science

Feeding children cow’s milk before their first birthday remains a health problem worldwide, but mothers in Kosovo cling to this practice for tradition’s sake despite its dangers.

The way an infant is fed in the first days of its life is a determining factor for its future health.

It is preferred that a newborn child is fed its mother’s breast milk. In the days after it is born, the infant absorbs the antibodies from its mother’s colostrum, a mammary secretion produced immediately after birth, which is designed to increase the child’s immunity.

As in every other place in the world, “breast is best” holds true for Kosovo too, but when breastfeeding is impossible, the only accepted option is formula milk.

According to the United Nations Children’s Fund, UNICEF, which focuses on the welfare of children in developing countries, only 40 per cent of infants in Kosovo are fed with breast milk. The other 60 per cent are fed with formula milk or cow’s milk.

“How were we raised?” is the question that many mothers ask midwife Razije Musa, when she tells them not to give cow’s milk to infants in the first year of their lives.

Indignated by this response, Musa, who has been a midwife by profession for 45 years, says that in the past, in cases when breastfeeding was not possible, mothers used watered-down cow’s milk. And when infants suffered from constipation, they mixed the milk with sugar. According to her, this was only a remedy of the time and circumstances.

Musa says that this method is used even today, in 2018, even though mothers nowadays have access to the information that sugar, too, is totally prohibited until the age of one.

There are many reasons why an infant should not drink cow’s milk in the first year of its life.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, AAP, children that are fed cow’s milk receive less iron, vitamin E and fatty acids. However, they take in more proteins and salts, which are difficult to digest.

According to experts, cow’s milk is prone to causing anemia in children. This type of milk has a lot of calcium, which is known to hinder the absorption of iron in the blood.

It is believed that cow’s milk, when used in the first year of a child’s life, overstrains the kidneys because of the heavy minerals and amount of salts that it contains, while water-soluble vitamins are destroyed when it is boiled.

“From experience, I can say with full responsibility that a mother who feeds her child cow’s milk before its first birthday causes harm to the extent that it can damage kidney function,” Musa said.

Besime Imeri-Ajeti says that she still experiences the consequences of her mother’s decision to feed her cow’s milk when she was an infant.

She says that she was fed cow’s milk from the age of three months, and now suffers from anemia.

“My mother lived and acted through this motto, and she started feeding me cow’s milk when I was three months old. From that time until now, I have been suffering from anaemia in every period, time and season of my life, which causes other health issues. But why should we compare ourselves with our mothers, who did as much as they knew and worked with as much as they had,” she said.

Imeri-Ajeti and a few of her friends now run a Facebook group called “Advice and recipes for babies and children,” where mothers read suggestions and share their experiences.

The group functions based on the recommendations of the World Health Organization, WHO, and the AAP.

She says that the group she manages has many mothers who say that they have started feeding their babies cow’s milk during the first year of their lives. According to her, they even justify their actions.

“‘We were all fed cow’s milk but nothing happened to us,’ is a phrase that we hear young mothers in our group say quite often, unfortunately. This sort of harsh phrase obligates mothers to feed their infant with cow’s milk before turning one. Wanting their child to be ‘healthy as a horse’ they choose cow’s milk without knowing the dangers,” she says.

On the other hand, Musa says that, according to research, every species needs to be fed with its mother’s milk, but humans make an exception.

“When there is no breast milk, only formula is acceptable. It is designed to fulfill the needs for the growth and development of the child, and cow’s milk is not, because it is poor in minerals and vitamins,” she says.

Neonatologist and pediatrician Faton Krasniqi from the University Clinical Center of Kosovo, QKUK, says that the usage of cow’s milk for babies continues to this day.

According to him, parents in rural areas are more prone to feeding children cow’s milk, as opposed to city dwellers. He says that the risk is even higher when an infant is fed unprocessed cow’s milk.

According to Krasniqi, these cases cause complications such as calcium deficiency, rickets, a skeletal disorder, sideropenic anaemia, milk protein intolerance, and other problems.

“In cases when natural feeding cannot be ensured before the sixth month of life, formula milk is recommended. After that period, besides supplementary food, feeding can proceed with industrial milk until their first birthday,” he says.

Parents bear the responsibility for a good start to a children’s healthy life. Today, there are many types of formula milk in the market with different prices.

If the costs of treating a child who is ill as a result of feeding habits at the beginning of its life are compared to the price of formula milk, the latter is the right investment after all possibility of breastfeeding is exhausted.

This month, Kosovo marked breastfeeding week, which was accompanied with different activities in support of breastfeeding women with the aim of increasing the prevalence of breastfeeding in society.

13/10/2018 - 13:35

13 October 2018 - 13:35

Prishtina Insight is a digital and print magazine published by BIRN Kosovo, an independent, non-governmental organisation. To find out more about the organization please visit the official website. Copyright © 2016 BIRN Kosovo.