A mother of a healthy child, or a healthy child of a healthy mother?

IMG_0111One of the most common statements that we came across in the sphere of child health was – “Swasth bachcha – hasta, khelta, bolta, rota nahi”. Most parameters of good health after the child is born come from visible signs of a happy, playful, even a fair skinned child, and the mother’s habits, post-delivery, are believed to have a fair amount of impact on the same.

Ajunubi Begum is about 16 years old, and has been married for 3 years. While she miscarried a child when in her third month of pregnancy, she now has a 10 month old daughter. Early marriage is a common practice in the community, mostly due to social pressure. While Ajunubi complains of having become weak and thin after becoming a mother, she does not consider her early marriage and childbearing to be a contributing factor to her physical strains. Most women, at the time of pregnancy, do not make any major changes to their food or work habits. Many believe that their daily diet has no impact on the health of the child to be born. 

She does, however, draw a parallel between breast milk and the health of the mother, where the latter can be gauged by the quality of milk she can produce. She especially relates health to the viscosity of the milk, with thicker milk being more nutritious for the infant. “Maa ka swaasth doodh mein hai. Patla hoga doodh toh royega bachcha. Ghana doodh toh bachcha bhi mota; patla doodh toh bachcha patla.” This was one of the most unique answers we got while conducting interviews, whereas most of the other women related the mother’s health directly with her child’s health and well being, and by her capability to take care of and feed the child.

Beliefs relating the breast milk to the health of the mother were echoed by many women in various forms of regulations imposed on the mother. We heard of several restrictions on the eating habits of the mother for a few weeks after delivery. A lot of vegetables like brinjal, cauliflower, tomatoes and any stale food is not allowed to be consumed as it is believed that it can inflame the infant’s wound where the cord was cut (naabhi ka ghaav). Tangy food (khatta khaana) is not permissible as it can spoil the breast milk (Doodh phat jayega). “Maa ke seeney ko havaa nahi lagni chahiye, warna doodh ko kharaabi hogi.” The mother is supposed to avoid cold things and keep her chest protected as the child can fall sick because of it. It is even said that if the mother takes a cold water bath, the child can end up with a cold.

There are two salient insights for us to pursue:

Firstly, while more subliminal concepts such as everyday food, nutrition, energy of the mother are not recognized as having an impact the child, practices that have a visible consequence / outcome such as quality of breastmilk, belly button healing etc. are immediately understood and the impact of the mother’s behaviour on the child’s health are recognized. This differentiation comes from a visible understanding of cause and effect and is one of the prime reasons some practices and behaviours are more prevalent than others. For this reason ante-natal care is given far less importance than post-natal and neo-natal care.

Secondly, there are no restrictions or specifications in food habits for the health of the mother; they have all been introduced for the well-being of the child. There is certainly a connect that people see between the health of the mother and the child, but in most cases, the priority is the well being of the latter. Can we leverage upon the fact that child health is of utmost importance to the family, and transform that into keeping the mother healthy? How might families give the mother’s health more importance than they do currently?

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On a closing note, I hope we can work towards improving the status of women from mere child-producing machines into humans that are valued in a holistic manner; it is high time families are made aware of and realize that the health of the child comes from the well being of the mother and not the other way round. We look forward to designing a series of messaging strategies focused on this ‘symbiotic’ relationship in the coming months.

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