Feeding babies forcefully is a widespread childcare practice in Africa, particularly in Yoruba land. The desire to feed children forces women to engage in forced feeding.
The practice is learnt by mostly females through socialization process, and practised as an expected role of a responsible mother. It is passed from generation to generation and done mostly by the elderly. In Nigeria particularly, it is common to see young women and their mothers-in-law quarrel over force-feeding of their babies.
While the younger women feel irritated by the practice, the elderly believe it must be done to avoid starving the babies. Analysts note that cereals, milk and other beverages are mostly force-fed on babies by their grandmothers especially when they are ill and lose appetite or when the grandmothers mistake the babies’ slim stature to be as a result of not feeding well.
Though well-intended by mothers, nannies and other care givers, only a few, however, know it is dangerous. Medical experts warn that force-feeding is a dangerous experiment that contributes to infant mortality and can lead to litigation.
A Paediatric Neurologist, Dr Okunola Olusola from the University of Benin Teaching Hospital, describes force-feeding as dangerous and foolish.
According to him, force-feeding compels a child to use his mouth to breath, cry and eat at the same time. He warns that any mother doing so may kill the child. “At the back of the throat, the pipe going to the lungs (trachea) and the pipe going to the abdomen (esophagus) cannot be open at the same time; the esophagus is supposed to receive food while the trachea is supposed to receive air.
“Now, the child is forced to do both at the same time because somebody wants the child to eat. The risk is that there is a tendency that, in an attempt to breath, the child will also be swallowing at the same time. “Normally, there is a cover for the trachea when we want to swallow because the trachea – the air pipe or wind pipe as it is called – is in front. The esophagus is at the back, something covers the wind pipe so that food does not enter into the wind pipe. “Now there is a risk of food entering into it and because the child is a baby, who cannot coordinate everything well, the child will choke as food can enter into the wind pipe.
“Now there is a risk of food entering into it and because the child is a baby, who cannot coordinate everything well, the child will choke as food can enter into the wind pipe. “When food like pap enters into that kind of place, it is like cementing the pipe, thereby preventing air from entering; so the child dies of asphyxiation,’’ the expert explains. The doctor says asphyxiation is like drowning because water and food entered where only air should enter. “I particularly have a young woman who did it and killed her own child, and I have seen more than five cases of others killing their children by forcefully feeding them.’’ According to the paediatrician, even when a mother succeeds in force-feeding her child or grandchild, there is still a risk of the child developing chest infections.