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When Sylvia Awino Atero was pregnant with her fourth child, her sister-in-law, Christine, was expecting, too. The two women lived with their husbands, who are brothers, in the same family compound in Kanganya, Kenya.

“We got pregnant around the same time and went to pre-natal clinic together. I was the first to deliver, in March 2018, and she delivered in May 2018, through C-section because she developed complications during labor,” said Sylvia.

Unfortunately, Christine died in the hospital shortly after developing post-labor chest pains. Sylvia took Christine’s newborn daughter, Jeni, home. The baby continued to cry inconsolably, hungry for her mother’s milk.

Sylvia wanted to breastfeed Jeni along with her own two-month old son, Simon, but in the community where she lives, breastfeeding another woman’s baby is a deeply-held cultural taboo. “Some neighbors told me that it was wrong and it would cause my child to die,” Sylvia said.

Helen Keller International supports health and nutrition for babies, pregnant women, and mothers through the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative at Kenya’s Kakamega General Hospital. A nurse from the hospital, Sister Anne, who is also Sylvia’s neighbor, called a late-night meeting with Sylvia and her mother-in-law, Epheth, to discuss the possibility of Sylvia breastfeeding Jeni. Epheth agreed, acknowledging that breastfeeding was in the baby’s best interest.

The hospital did a blood test to ensure that Sylvia was free from any diseases that might harm Jeni. Once the results came back showing good health, Sylvia started feeding Jeni—eight hours after Christine’s death—and the baby immediately stopped crying.

“I took Jeni as my own and started breastfeeding her, and she’s now doing well,” Sylvia said. Sister Anne has been visiting, checking on how the two babies are doing, making sure Sylvia is feeding and eating well, and offering breastfeeding guidance. Sylvia’s extended family cooks for her, to ensure she produces enough milk to feed two hungry infants.

“It’s not good to see another baby suffering”: Breaking Taboos

As for the cultural taboo, Sylvia decided to tune out the voices of those who disapproved, since she knew that her religion permitted breastfeeding an adopted child and the community health workers encouraged it. 

“My advice to other mothers is that it’s okay to breastfeed another woman’s baby so long as the hospital has checked your status and found that you are fit to breastfeed,” Sylvia said. “It’s not good to see another baby suffering while yours is stable.”

Sister Anne cites the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative training supported by Helen Keller International as the key to her success in becoming an advocate for breastfeeding. “We were taught the importance of breastfeeding,” she said. “We learned that it is very important for a child to breastfeed up to six months. It’s also important to be friendly to the mother and empathetic to the mother and child.”

That’s exactly what Sister Anne did, and everyone in Sylvia’s extended family is grateful for what it made possible.

“I am thankful to my daughter-in-law for what she is doing,” Epheth said. “My husband and my children are also very grateful.”

Helen Keller International provides Kakamega General Hospital with technical and financial assistance to implement the World Health Organization and UNICEF’s Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, which supports, promotes, and protects breastfeeding through training of health workers.

Group photo (left to right): Sylvia and baby Jeni; Margret Oyugi, Head of Nutrition at Kakamega General Hospital, holding baby Simon.