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Don't force-feed your child, Africa's experts warn

February 23, 2022

The practice of force-feeding babies and toddlers is common in many African countries. Health experts warn that, though this gives adults full control, it can harm a child's development.

A baby on a scale
Experts advise parents to feed the children when they are hungryImage: Getty Images/AFP/F. Vergnes

Many babies and toddlers in parts of Africa are subjected to the intrusive practice of force-feeding despite the known health risks. 

The practice is not uncommon in West Africa, Professor Ignatius Onimawo, the former president of the Nutrition Society of Nigeria, told DW.

"The woman positions the child between her legs and uses one hand to block the child's nose. The child has no option but to open its mouth. Then porridge is poured into the child's mouth, forcing it to swallow," he said.

"The practice is dreadful and has, on numerous occasions, led to the death of children here in Nigeria. It is still dominant in the south. There are deaths that have been recorded."

Such deaths cannot be quantified because they are usually treated as accidental, Professor Onimawo explained.

Three pots on an open fire
Force-feeding a baby can result in accidental suffocationImage: picture alliance/John Heeneman

Culture or nurture? 

In African societies, parents and caregivers will tell you that the practice of pushing too much food into the mouth of a baby or toddler is deeply rooted in their culture. 

"Yes, my mum used to pinch my nose and force food into my mouth. I have seen her doing the same thing to my siblings," said Wezi Gausi, a Malawian mother of two. 

"To me, forcing a child to eat is normal. What I can say is that most kids are selective when it comes to food. As a mother, I know what is best for my child."

Kenyan mother Irene Wairimu admits to forcing her daughter to eat. "I am not employed and do on-call domestic jobs. I can't stay there with the child all day. I have to force-feed her, so that she stays full throughout the day. Then I will be able to go to work."

Distress over meals

Keziah Wangari of Kenya says that her four-year-old son dislikes porridge but needs it, because breast milk is not enough to keep him nourished. That is why she forces him to eat the porridge.

Irene Wairimu's daughter is also picky when it comes to food, causing upset and confusion.

"My child is always hungry. I am forced to supplement the feeding with porridge, but my daughter does not like porridge. I block her nose, so that she will drink all the porridge," the 25-year-old said. 

"The porridge will ensure she stays fed."

Bridget Banda of Malawi says she uses force because she cannot let her child go hungry just because she refuses to eat. "It's every mother's responsibility to make sure that their child eats the food."

A meal with ugali
Maize is a staple across Africa south of the Sahara

Quality over quantity

All nutrition experts DW spoke to in Kenya and Nigeria strongly cautioned parents against force-feeding. 

"A child is a human being and knows what it wants. A parent may want to give it certain food items, ignoring the child's preference," says Gladys Mugambi, head of the Nutrition and Dietetics Unit at Kenya's Health Ministry.

The portions given to children should be measured, according to the Nigerian nutritionist Ignatius Onimawo.

"Some of the foods they are forcing on the children are not even nutritious, It's just maize flour mixed with water, low in protein and other essential nutrients."

Eating disorders

Research shows that force feeding can disrupt a child's development. It can lead to acute malnutrition or obesity, and ultimately poor self-regulation when it comes to food consumption later in life.

"Sometimes these kids may look healthy but they are not. Though their tummies may appear big, there are other signs to show that they are malnourished, because that food they force them to eat is not nutritious," said Onimawo.

A woman breastfeeding an infant
The WHO and UNICEF recommend exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months of life and the introduction of nutritionally-adequate and safe complementary foods thereafterImage: Dagmar Wittek/DW

Over-feeding and force-feeding in childhood can also cause other eating disorders like anorexia, according to Gladys Mugambi. Parents and caregivers should take advantage of available resources to educate themselves about child nutrition, she told DW.

Psychological effects

Ruth Nduati, a paediatrics professor at the University of Nairobi warns that anxious parents who use force to get a child to eat could cause the child to like food less. 

The child, she said, would associate the bad experiences with certain foods. In many cases, force-feeding leads to overeating because a child fails to learn appropriate appetite control. Children usually know when they are hungry and when they are full and those signals should be nurtured, Nduati told DW. 

Gladys Mugambi, the nutritionist says new mothers are now being advised to keenly consider such responsive methods of feeding their babies.

"In Kenya, we have come up with guidelines that can be used by all mothers. When the mother gives birth, we give them the card that has all the information that is required to take care of the toddlers nutrition-wise."

Mirriam Kaliza (in Malawi) and Andrew Wasike (in Kenya) contributed to this report.

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen and Cristina Krippahl

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