COVID-19 and then a coup d’état have dealt health services a double blow in Myanmar, but nutritionists are leveraging social media to provide practical information on breastfeeding to expectant and new mothers with support from Alive & Thrive.
Healthy and Happy Families, a social enterprise developed by nutritionists and inspired by a successful initiative in Viet Nam, was just about to sign a lease for a community center when COVID-19 hit in March 2020, explained one of its co-founders. Fortunately, they did not sign that lease – because a few days later the measures implemented to prevent spread of COVID-19 brought life to a virtual halt.
Read the Healthy and Happy Families social media strategy presentation for more insight.
Like health service providers everywhere, they had to improvise in the face of COVID-19. Inspired by the experience of a Facebook group in Viet Nam, Betibuti ("Breastfed baby" in Vietnamese) and supported by Alive & Thrive’s Southeast Asia office, Healthy and Happy Families launched online instead.
“We’re nutritionists — we didn’t really know anything about how social media works,” the co-founder recalled. “I spoke to Jenn (Cashin of Alive & Thrive’s Southeast Asia office), and she became interested in strengthening our social media capacity. Linh (Nguyen) helped us a lot, too.”
“We hooked up with Betibuti in Viet Nam and we learned a lot from the group’s founder. Then we developed a social media strategy with A&T support, which is now being implemented.”
Thelma Tun Thein, a registered dietitian, nutritionist and lactation consultant, co-founded Healthy and Happy Families, provides more background on the group in this interview.
Healthy and Happy Families’ Mommy’s Milk (May May Cho Cho in Burmese) Facebook group started with about 20 members — friends who wanted to share information on breastfeeding, the co-founder said. In the 15 months since, it has grown to more than 6,000 members who post questions daily.
A group of about 15 volunteers trained by Healthy and Happy Families, many of them mothers themselves, provide answers to mothers posing questions in the group.
“Most of the members are mothers, and sometimes fathers join,” the co-founder said. “Mothers will bring in their husbands, telling them ‘Come here and see what we are discussing.’”
The larger membership called for an expanded support team – namely, volunteers who answer the questions posted daily to the group. In October 2021, the 15 volunteers completed a nine-day training covering topics such as essential breastfeeding knowledge, basic counseling skills, and techniques in supporting mothers with breastfeeding problems. These trained mothers are called “Breastfeeding Mother Champions.”
Initially, the training was complemented by mentoring sessions; however, their frequency was reduced due to electricity black-outs and a surge in the cost of internet data. The group of trained volunteer Breastfeeding Mother Champions are now using a chat group to continue the communication.
Khine, a 30-year-old mother of a two-and-a-half year old, said her difficulties with breastfeeding, which were resolved with help from an expert, inspired her to become a group expert with Healthy and Happy Families.
“I struggled quite a lot with breastfeeding before I got help – I was helpless before I met Thelma Tun Thein [another co-founder of Healthy and Happy Families],” she said. “That’s why I wanted to help.
“Breastfeeding is not always easy — people need a lot of education, a lot of help. I want to try to help them.”
The Mommy’s Milk support group has faced more concrete challenges, the co-founder said. The cost of internet connectivity has skyrocketed in Myanmar since the political turbulence in the country. The coup has also caused significant problems for the country’s health care system, limiting access to basic health services.
“Internet is now four times more expensive than last year,” he said. “One gigabyte of data now costs USD 1.50 when previously you could get five gigabytes for as little as USD 0.50.”
In a country where the minimum daily wage is USD 2.00 with the current exchange rate, the costs have a real impact, he said.
The tensions in the country related to the coup have also posed challenges.
“Facebook is restricted in the country now,” he said. “Sometimes our meetings are cut off. We also use the fan page less - we don’t want to be too visible because anything can be misinterpreted.”
But the challenges have not diminished the passion among Healthy and Happy Families’ co-founders nor their volunteers to ensure women have access to breastfeeding support.
“I am really passionate about breastfeeding,” Khine said. “It’s the best you can give your child.”
The co-founder said the page and group admin team often answers questions as he goes to bed – because that is when many mothers are free to participate online.
“The questions are quite basic but very important,” he said. “The most frequent questions are, ‘I’m not producing enough breastmilk, what can I do?’ and ‘I don’t want to give formula, how can I get more milk?’
“Many mothers also ask about returning to work – ‘I’m returning to work in one week or one month, what can I do?’”
Some questions touch on deeply held traditions, Khine said.
“There’s a myth in our country that some women cannot produce milk at all,” she explained. “And when I say it’s not true, they are like, ‘Is it true?’ I tell them you can try skin-to-skin contact, you will produce more. And then they try and they find out it works.”
The group experts provide answers and refer members to a variety of resources; sometimes, they arrange private video calls to address specific issues. Whatever form it takes, their support is important, Khine said.
Learn more about the humanitarian situation in Myanmar here.
I often follow global updates from A&T because I know what this organization works and was part of a program in Ethiopia some 5 years ago. This is very lovely and interesting story. The situation is similar in Ethiopia as everyone is busy of thinking the political instability, increased unemployment and skyrocketing cost of living throughout the country and ignore other issues even to see and hear. Discussing such development issues are considered as a luxury stuff. However, I believe the issues of MIYCN is still a priority that I got a lesson from this story and I personally want to establish similar platform in Ethiopia and bring at least volunteer people to a group and help the community to be benefited from such campaigns that will have a positive outcome to generations to come.
Thank you very much