Sociocultural factors and the promotion of exclusive breastfeeding in rural Yoruba communities of Osun State, Nigeria

Soc Sci Med. 1997 Jul;45(1):113-25. doi: 10.1016/s0277-9536(96)00320-6.


Child survival strategies include prolonged and intensive breastfeeding, together with its early initiation, and breastmilk only for the first six months of life. This paper reports on local knowledge and attitudes of breastfeeding and the sociocultural factors that shape its practice in poor rural Yoruba communities of Southwestern Nigeria. The study has conducted 10 focus group discussions among homogeneous groups of grandmothers, pregnant women, lactating mothers, husbands, and community health workers, and a questionnaire survey of 256 third trimester pregnant women. All women in these communities breastfeed their infants on demand, and for up to two years, because breastmilk is universally accepted as the best food for babies, and breastfeeding spaces births. Prelacteal feedings of water herbal infusions and ritual fluids are the norm, and breastmilk is supplemented, from birth, with water and teas. Exclusive breastfeeding is considered dangerous to the infant: the baby has an obligatory requirement for supplementary water to quench its thirst and promote its normal development, and for herbal teas which serve as food and medicine. Colostrum is discarded because it is dirty, "like pus", and therefore potentially harmful to the infant, although 24% of the survey sample would give it to their babies. Expressed breastmilk is suspect as it can get contaminated, poisoned or bewitched. Complementary foods are introduced as early as two months because of perceived lactation insufficiency. The commonest supplement is a watery maize porridge of low nutrient density. Breastfeeding can also be dangerous, as toxins and contaminants can be passed to the infant through breastmilk. The most serious conflict with the WHO/UNICEF recommendations is the lack of local credibility of exclusive breastfeeding. According to local knowledge, the early introduction of water, herbal teas, and of complementary foods is designed to enhance child survival, while these are supposed to do the exact opposite by the WHO/UNICEF rationale, by exposing the infant to contaminants early, thereby increasing diarrheal morbidity and mortality. Child survival interventions need to address this conflict.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Attitude to Health / ethnology
  • Breast Feeding / ethnology*
  • Ceremonial Behavior
  • Colostrum
  • Community Health Workers / psychology
  • Diarrhea, Infantile / psychology
  • Drinking
  • Ethnic Groups / psychology*
  • Feeding Behavior / ethnology
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice*
  • Health Surveys
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Food
  • Infant, Newborn
  • Lactation / ethnology
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / ethnology*
  • Medicine, Traditional*
  • Nigeria
  • Pregnancy
  • Rural Health*