It is common sense that ‘breast is best’ when it comes to feeding infants and young children …
After all, breast milk is uniquely, organically fit for a singular purpose. Yet, South Africa has an extraordinarily low rate of babies being breastfed exclusively in the first six months of their lives.
In fact, at just 8% against a global rate that is almost 40%, the South African statistic is regarded by UNICEF as one of the lowest in the world.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines optimal infant and young child nutrition as breast milk exclusively up until the age of six months; and then breast milk supplemented by safe and appropriate foods up until the age of two years, or beyond.
“There is a significant body of scientific evidence that informs these global nutritional guidelines and attests to the many benefits of breastfeeding when it comes to the health and well-being of not just baby, but Mum as well,” says Cath Day, ADSA (Association for Dietetics in South Africa’s) spokesperson.
“For instance, new research presented in The Lancet, an international medical journal, states that optimal breastfeeding could save the lives of 823 000 children a year, and there’s substantial evidence that breastfeeding can help to ward off breast and ovarian cancers in mothers too.”
Barriers to breastfeeding
With World Breastfeeding Week spanning the 1st to the 7th of August, we face the reality that the majority of women all over the world, but particularly in South Africa, don’t meet accepted international, or national, nutritional guidelines for breastfeeding their babies because they experience strong, often culturally-institutionalised barriers to breastfeeding.
And, that is why we all have a part of play in transforming the country into an enabling environment that properly supports, encourages and upholds breastfeeding mothers.
Over the past years, South Africa has taken steps to rectify the provision of inaccurate information by health care providers and implemented measures to mitigate the aggressive corporate marketing of breast milk substitutes which undermine breastfeeding. In addition, the country’s employment laws have enshrined the rights of mothers with infants under six months, who have had to return to work, to take two 30-minute breaks during work hours to express milk.
But clearly this is not enough, as reviews show we have stagnated at the exceedingly low rate of 8% for years on the most important marker of infant nutrition.
A positive attitude to breastfeeding needs
“The proper support needed to achieve the scale of breastfeeding that would meet global guidelines and significantly improve infant mortality in South Africa has to be multi-level and multi-pronged,” says Thembekile Dlamini, also a Registered Dietitian and ADSA spokesperson. “That is why breastfeeding should rather be viewed as ‘everybody’s business’ versus an activity that a mother feels she needs to guard and hide, perhaps even in her own home, family environment, workplace and community. A positive attitude to breastfeeding needs to permeate all aspects of South African society, across all socio-economic levels.”
This highlights the reality that breastfeeding as the source of optimal and exclusive infant nutrition is unfortunately, too often, transformed from a natural, basically unremarkable human activity securely bolstered not just by straightforward good sense but by modern scientific evidence too, into a contentious nutritional fashion or a fad, buffeted by fleeting, often self-serving opinions, agendas and perceptions.
Everyday barriers that breastfeeding women experience range from partners who are un-supportive due to self-interest, to grandparents who ‘morally’ disapprove of public breastfeeding. Corporate environments may not provide suitable facilities, nor accept the routines for lactating mothers who are back at work.
Let’s find ways and work together to support women who are trying to give their children the best start in life:
- Fathers and partners who are informed about the benefits of breastfeeding and supportive of a breastfeeding mother can have a major influence on successful outcomes
- Other family members, particularly grandmothers and aunts, who a mother might turn to for advice and support also have a considerable influence to bear when it comes to encouraging or discouraging breastfeeding
- Mothers also often rely on advice and support from their friends, especially those who might be more practiced mothers than they are. While there is much value in friends’ sharing their experiences of motherhood, the breastfeeding advice you give should be objective. Mothers who are experiencing difficulties with breastfeeding should be encouraged to get professional help before considering giving it up
- Employers can support breastfeeding mothers who have returned to work to establish a routine to express milk in private and comfortable surrounds
Breastfeeding support available in South Africa
- Mothers can obtain professional help with breastfeeding from lactation consultants, who are health professionals with advanced training in breastfeeding support
- La Leche League South Africa is a voluntary organisation which provides information and support to women who want to breastfeed their babies. La Leche League Leaders are experienced breastfeeding mothers, trained and accredited by LLL, who are happy to help other mothers with questions and concerns about breastfeeding
- Milk Matters is a community-based breast milk bank that pasteurises and distributes donations of screened breast milk from healthy donors to premature, ill and vulnerable babies whose own mothers cannot supply the breast milk to meet their baby’s needs. Their website has valuable information for breastfeeding mothers
- This year, the World Breastfeeding Week theme is ‘Breastfeeding: A Key to Sustainable Development’. The website is packed with useful and interesting information on wide range of positive impacts of breastfeeding on society and the planet