Due to the enormous number of families in Latin America living on less than $1 US dollar a day, many families end up going hungry and are unable to prevent the malnutrition of their children. Fifty-six percent of all Guatemalan children are malnourished, the highest amount of any Latin American country. With such a large population unable to afford food, Guatemala is burdened by the costs of the many illnesses caused from weakened immune systems and a loss of productivity from those who do not have the energy to work.
Where does this debilitating cycle of malnutrition start? Many infants are born healthy and remain healthy- until their mother must stop breastfeeding them. For many Guatemalans, the crisis starts even earlier, at birth, when they are born into families that are unable to adequately feed them. About 70 percent of indigenous families in Guatemala are malnourished, a condition which leaves mothers unable to provide adequate milk for their babies. When a mother is not adequately nourished herself, she is also tragically unable to provide the amount of milk her new baby needs to develop normally.
Other women must return to work shortly after their baby is born, leaving them with very little opportunity to breastfeed. When a mother is unable to feed her baby every few hours, she begins to produce less and less milk, leaving her hungry baby to waste away instead of experience the rate of growth that is normal for this critical stage of life.
Only 50 percent of Guatemalan children under six months are exclusively breastfed as recommended by doctors and our organization. Whether the mothers are too malnourished themselves to provide for their children, or their family´s impoverished state requires their immediate return to work after giving birth, there are forces beyond their control preventing them from providing their babies the life they would like to give. For the half of the families who are unable to breastfeed their newest members, it is often impossible to buy the enriched formula necessary to replace natural breast milk. Instead of helplessly watching their infant suffer, many mothers in the Lake Atitlan region who are unable to breastfeed substitute rice water or cow´s milk in their baby´s bottle. In reality, neither of these substitutes contains the nutrients needed to nourish a growing baby- and the lactose in cow´s milk may even harm the baby´s stomach.
Malnutrition during childhood can cause irreversible physical and mental stunting, no matter how much the child´s nutrition improves in the future. Mayan Families' preschools constantly receive children who are shorter and less developed than average for their age because they were not properly nourished as infants. These students constantly struggle to overcome the mental and physical setbacks that resulted from their inadequate childhood nutrition.
Recognizing that infant nutrition is the foundation of a healthy, productive life, Mayan Families has stepped up to meet this need in Lake Atitlan´s indigenous population with a monthly milk distribution to mothers of young children. Mothers from all around Lake Atitlan make the trip to our office each month, carrying their infants on their backs and leading their older children by the hand. Over 80 children and infants fill our yard as they await the milk that stands between them and malnutrition that month.
Because critical development continues well past infancy, Mayan Families distributes a type of enriched formula or milk that is appropriate for each baby or child´s stage of development. An average milk distribution day will bring infants (even just 15 days old!), five-year-olds with height more fitting for toddlers, and even handicapped adults lacking the calcium they need to maintain their health. Each family comes because they know the importance of this nourishment for their child.
The use of formula gives the children of Panajachel and the surrounding villages the nutrients they need, but still requires caution in regards to its preparation to protect the infants´ developing immune systems. When a mother breastfeeds, vital antibodies are transferred to her child that help him or her fight off potentially life-threatening diseases. Without that source of protection, infants from impoverished families are left vulnerable to illnesses that could permanently derail their development. At Mayan Families, we are working to educate local mothers in how to best protect their little ones, offering resources and classes in both Spanish and their native language of Kakchiquel. We discuss the importance of boiling the water used to mix the powdered formula and cleaning their children's bottles adequately to kill the microbes threatening their sons and daughters. We also emphasize to the mothers the importance of nourishing themselves so that they can improve the quality and quantity of the natural milk they are providing for their child.
Serving over 80 children each month is a vital service for the indigenous of Lake Atitlan, but is also an expensive undertaking. A container of milk to nourish a child for a month costs $30 US dollars. We rely on the generosity of our donors to enable us to purchase and distribute this crucial source of life to our local mothers. If you would like to partner with us in aiding these growing families, please help us spread the word about the critically important work we do here in Guatemala and also donate now by clicking here: http://www.mayanfamilies.org/DonateOnline
For more information on the importance of infant nutrition, please see
the links below.
· The World Health Organization’s fact sheet on infant and young child feeding
· The Mother and Child Health and Education Trust
· WIC’s Infant Nutrition and Feeding Guide