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.
“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.
He advises parents to give children what they like eating, arguing that when a child refuses to eat, it means the food is tasteless.
“When the food is tasty to the child, he will eat; no child is force-fed with ice cream or chocolate drinks; it is always tasteless pap, custard and other cereal,’’ he notes, but warns against feeding children with foods containing much sugar.
He also urges mothers to introduce children to family diet early to encourage them to eat.
“If a mother does the right thing by introducing the child gradually to family food, once the child begins to show interest, the child will like what the parents are eating.
“Children copy adults; if anybody is eating, the child will eat, but when you separate the child away from the family food and start feeding the child with some kind of special milk, the child can lose interest in family food,’’ he argues.
Olusola, who describes for-feeding as child abuse, calls for punishment for those engaging in it.
He says governments should come up with laws criminalizing force-feeding.
The doctor urges fathers to take charge of their homes by ensuring that they have control of their wives and other caregivers living with him.
Another paediatrician, Dr Okiemute Olibamoyo of the Department of Paediatrics, College of Medicine, University of Lagos, wants mothers to change the way they prepare baby foods if they find out that their babies are not eating.
According to her, sometimes a child who refuses to eat his mother’s food is eating that same food when prepared by another woman.
“Mothers need to know what their children like best instead of forcing them to eat any food.
“Most times when mothers force-feed their children, fragments of the food end up in the children’s lungs and trigger pneumonia.
“Force feeding a child can lead to the child developing hatred for food. Once a child develops hatred for food, the hatred might lead to eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia,’’ Olibamoyo warns.
She wants mothers to desist from force-feeding babies in order not to kill them or break their jaws or hurt them with the plates used in feeding them.
A mother of two, Mrs Julian Igbo, regrets that she quarrels with her mother-in-law over force-feeding of her children.
“Mama forces pap and tea down the throats of the babies each time they refuse to eat. I get irritated at that and complain but she will tell me that she cannot watch her children starve,’’ she narrates.
According to Igbo, her mother-in-law often turns the babies’ heads down with their legs up, while force-feeding them.
“I can’t stand the sight.’’
A 61-year-old grandmother, Mr Mary Okunola, who admits force-feeding has helped many children to avoid starvation and malnutrition, is of the opinion that the practice cannot be easily eradicated.
She, however, advises women to be more careful in feeding their babies to avoid suffocation.
Okunola wants mothers to learn from the experience of a nanny reportedly sentenced in the U.S. recently for causing the death of a baby by force-feeding the baby.
Reports say the woman, a 73-year-old Nigerian, caused the death of an eight-month-old baby in Maryland, U.S. by forcing milk down the throat of the baby thereby suffocating the child.
The septuagenarian was found guilty of child abuse and second-degree murder by Prince George’s County Circuit Court which sentenced her to 15 years’ imprisonment for causing the death on Oct. 26, 2016.
The judge said she did not believe the convict was an “evil-intentioned baby slayer”, but expected her to know her actions could result in the death of the child.