Infants who are not breastfed are 15 times more likely to die from pneumonia and 11 times more likely to die of diarrhoea than those who are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life.
Worldwide, 92 million children under six months of age – two out of three babies – are either fed artificially or through a mixture of breast milk and other foods like formula milk.
Debra Musembi, a working mother to 5-month-old baby boy, Jabulani Kivale, attests her baby’s health to her exclusive breastfeeding. She is among millions of working mothers worldwide who strive to ensure the wellbeing of their children through exclusive breastfeeding with the support from their employers.
“My son has only had breast milk from birth and even as a working professional, which has not hindered me from ensuring that my baby is on breast milk only. At work I express the excess milk for him to ensure continuity of supply,” she says.
Reports indicate that if every baby was fed during the first hour of life – what is called the “power hour” – it is estimated that up to 830,000 newborn deaths could be prevented every year; that’s 95 babies every hour.
The theme for World breastfeeding week this year is ‘Breastfeeding support: Close to Mothers’ which highlights Breastfeeding Peer Counselling. Even when mothers are able to get off to a good start, all too often in the weeks or months after delivery there is a sharp decline in breastfeeding rates and practices, particularly exclusive breastfeeding.
That time when mothers do not visit a healthcare facility is the time when a community support system for mothers is essential. According to the breastfeeding report by Save the Children dubbed Superfood for babies, there are four major barriers that prevent mothers from breastfeeding their babies. The report examined the reasons behind the lack of progress in improving breastfeeding rates in 44 countries across the world.
First on the list is shortage of health workers in health facilities that has contributed significantly to the decline of breastfeeding at birth. It is reported that one third of infants are born without a skilled birth attendant present. As a result, the chance of supporting and encouraging a new mother to breastfeed in the first few hours is lost.
Secondly, the lack of maternity legislation in areas of national policy like maternity leave, financial protection to help maintain family income while on leave and work place provisions to allow breast feeding to continue in some countries, makes it difficult for a mother to breastfeed especially after returning to work after the birth of a child.
Women who are in casual employment encounter a myriad of challenges with the birth of a child. Some employers do not have maternity leave provisions and at some point may not support the mother with her arrival of the bundle of joy.
Triza Mwangi who works in one of the salons at Reinsurance Plaza in Nairobi says a month to her delivery, her employer informed her that she could only stay home with her child for a month if she intended to keep her job.
“Since I am not permanently employed, I did not have the luxury of staying home for the stipulated three months to breastfeed my child. That one month I stayed home I did not receive any income as I had not worked. I had to resume work immediately to secure my job,” says Triza.
“I would get an off day once a week which I would use to look for braiding jobs for a commission in order to survive.”
She adds that the availability of a private space to express milk while at work is also a challenge.
Community and cultural pressures are amongst the barriers to exclusive breastfeeding. The report indicates that mothers from poor countries are given misleading advice or are coerced into harmful practises like giving alternative foods or liquids in place of breastfeeding.
Many women are not free to make their own decisions on breastfeeding. In Pakistan, only 44 per cent of mothers consider themselves to be the prime decision makers over their child’s wellbeing. Most of the times, it is often the husbands or mothers-inlaw who decide how their children will be fed.
The big business barrier has also been a major concern. According to the report, the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes has since adopted a number of subsequent resolutions that ave developed and updated the original provisions. ‘The Code’ regulates marketing tactics that can undermine breastfeeding, including advertising, free samples, targeting mothers and health claims in packaging.
The growth in the baby food market is increasingly dependent on emerging economies. Strong legislation is needed to restrict the marketing strategies and activities of breast milk substitute companies.
According to Save the Children East Africa Regional Director Halane Hussein, many governments across East Africa have shown their determination to increase breastfeeding rates.
“Countries like Rwanda where 85 per cent of children are exclusively breastfed for the first six months have shown success is possible, however other countries in the region have further to go. In Kenya, only 32 per cent of children are exclusively breastfed meaning that too many children are missing out on vital nutrients they need in the first months of life,” noted Hussein.
As the world marks this year’s World breastfeeding week, it is important that we draw special attention to the importance of peer support in helping mothers establish and sustain breastfeeding.
Circles of support for mothers such as family and social networks, proper health care systems, work place and employment condition and government legislation all play a crucial role in the continuity of breastfeeding.
This article was originally published in Reject Online Issue 88: Celebrating Youth Empowerment