What to eat when you’re pregnant — in Malawi

When we mention maternal health, we’re usually talking about medical interventions from doctors and midwives. But there’s another vital factor to keeping mums healthy — food.

Why mums need to eat well

Anybody who has been pregnant knows how demanding it is on the body (you were probably exhausted and ravenous at times!). Mothers need the right kind of nutrition to stay healthy and strong throughout their pregnancy. The body prioritises the unborn baby’s development, so if mum doesn’t eat enough good food, she can be left weak, anaemic or with vitamin deficiencies.

It’s not just about feeling unwell — malnourished mothers are more likely to die during childbirth or take a long time to recover.

Breastfeeding takes a lot of energy too. A breastfeeding mum can burn as many calories per day as a bricklayer — and most of our mums in Malawi do physical work in the fields at the same time. Without enough good food, a mother’s body struggles to make the breastmilk her baby needs.

Although mum may bear the brunt, malnutrition means her unborn baby suffers too. Babies are more likely to be born prematurely or at a low birth weight, with inadequate brain and body development that can affect them for the rest of their lives.

Mother Buddies are on the case

Because of unreliable weather patterns, the parts of Malawi where we work are hit by food shortages every couple of years. We knew we had to take action against malnutrition or our twinned mums and their babies would be in danger no matter how much antenatal care we provided. We realised that our Mother Buddies are perfectly placed to monitor, advise and provide practical help to make sure that the women they support (and their babies) get the nutrition they need.

Finding out about a balanced diet

Mother Buddies give one-to-one counselling and run classes for the mums’ communities all about food. They provide recipes and advice about how to create the balanced diet that mothers need.

Many people in the rural areas where we work tend to eat one or two staple foods every day — carbohydrate-rich foods like rice, yam or nshima, a maize-based dish. A lot of our twinned mums didn’t appreciate how important it is to add other types of food to their diets. We call these the “go, grow and glow” food groups.

“Go” foods are rich in energy — these could be cooking oil, nuts or honey added to the mums’ staple foods. “Grow” foods are proteins (including insects!) that our twins can easily get hold of, while “glow” foods are vitamin-rich fruits and vegetables.

The Mother Buddies also explain how important it is for pregnant mothers to eat foods rich in iron and folic acid. They’ll often get their smartphones out and show the mums a short video like this one (made by Medical Aid Films):

Sharing new recipes

Even though food can be scarce in the communities where we work, lots of our mums do have access to crops like soya and beans. But often they don’t know how to make these crops into nutritious meals. One mum who came to her Mother Buddy’s classes said:

“There has been a tremendous improvement in our health. We have always had these foods like soya, maize and beans but we never knew that they could improve our health. The secret here is knowledge.”

Growing their own

Sometimes our twinned mums need more than recipes and advice, and in those cases we try to provide the missing parts of a balanced diet. Depending on what they need, Pregnancy Twinning helps families with long-term sources of food, like chickens, goats or seeds. That means mothers can keep on eating well through pregnancy, breastfeeding and beyond.

It works!

An evaluation of Pregnancy Twinning’s programme in Malawi found that our supported mums were 40% more likely to have at least three meals a day and had less difficulty meeting their family’s food needs.

If you’d like to thank your own mum for feeding you, or if she’d just like to be part of this project, you can send her a special Mother’s Day card for £16 and send advice, recipes and resources to another mum who needs good food. Thank you!