Today marks the end of this year’s Breastfeeding Week, which is commemorated globally to promote exclusive breastfeeding. While campaigns have been held over the years to encourage mothers to breastfeed their babies exclusively, and the message has sunk in, what are the factors that are keeping mothers from heeding this call despite knowing its benefits? RACHEL KACHALI writes.
It is afternoon and Rose Jiya Mdalla is sitting comfortably on her office chair working, an untouched meal beside her desk.
“I need to finish up this work, before I can take my meal,” says Mdalla, who works as a procurement officer at Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) in Lilongwe.
Married with three children, Mdalla says work and family are among the things she values most. She currently lives in Area 49 (Dubai) in Lilongwe.
“I cannot wait to get back home to my family and see my baby,” she says, referring to her one-year-old baby whom she still breastfeeds.
It is not the first time for Mdalla to work and take care of a small child at the same time. She says all her three children have been born while she was already working.
“As such, I always need to have someone at home to look after my baby when I am at work. I breastfeed the baby in the morning before I leave for work. Then I leave everything including baby formulas and diapers for those who are taking care of him,” explains Mdalla.
This means that despite her desire to breastfeed her child exclusively, as recommended by doctors, Mdalla is not able to do so due to her work commitments.
She discloses that she sometimes worries a lot about her baby, and calls her home once or twice while she is at work to ensure that the baby is doing fine.
“I always tell my baby’s nanny to call me if anything happens to my baby in my absence,” adds Mdalla, who is also taking afternoon classes at Exploits University in Lilongwe.
But she is not the only one facing this dilemma. Many women have had to embrace alternative means of baby food even when they would have liked to breastfeed exclusively.
Naomi Mukhuwa Chitenje, another working mother of two children holds the same view as Mdalla. Chitenje says while at the hospital, women are told the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and how they should breastfeed, most women stop breastfeeding within a few months of their babies’ birth.
“Some mothers, especially those who are in their 20s or below, do not want to breastfeed their babies for a long time because they say their breasts will sag. This is just absurd and totally different from what we learn at the hospitals,” says Chitenje.
Flora Khonje, a breastfeeding expert at Kamuzu Central Hospital (KCH) in Lilongwe says a woman needs to exclusively breastfeed the baby for the first six months and continue breastfeeding for 24 months.
“Exclusive breastfeeding involves giving the baby breast milk only without any addition of food or drink, not even water. The process reduces infant mortality that results from common childhood illnesses. Thus, a mother needs to breastfeed after every 30 minutes or an hour,” explains Khonje.
She says breast milk is the natural first food for babies. It provides all the energy and nutrients that the infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year and the second year of life.
“Most children who are stunted and lack common sense were not breast fed appropriately when they were babies. Others even suffer from malnutrition,” says Khonje.
World Health Organisation (WHO) reports indicate that malnutrition covers one third of 8.1 million deaths annually among children less than five years old.
Khonje, however, says there are some women, especially those who give birth at home, who do not feed their babies the first breast milk because of some beliefs.
“That milk is the best and helps in boosting the infant’s immunity. The yellow colour means the milk is rich in cholesterol. It protects the infant against infectious diseases,” she says.
Khonje says it is unfortunate that some mothers are not able to regularly breastfeed their babies.
“When a mother breastfeeds her child frequently, she can never run out of milk.” says Khonje, adding that fathers also need to play their part in breastfeeding.
“A father can help in making sure that the woman stays cheerful. They can all take turns to care for the baby. Sadness and anxiety contributes to low breast milk production in the woman,” she explains.
Khonje advises working women to use breast pumps to leave their breast milk in properly cleaned containers or cup feedings when they are leaving their babies home.
“However, the milk needs to be put in hot water before it is given to the baby and should not last for 24 hours,” says Khonje.
She says even mothers who are HIV positive are encouraged to breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months.
“We now use the Option B plus where expectant mothers with HIV start receiving antiretroviral therapy (ARVs) during pregnancy. With this method, there is only a four percent chance of the baby getting infected with the virus.
She says before 2006, Nephelapin used to be given to expectant HIV positive mothers but was stopped because it was found be ineffective as it offered only 74 percent chances for the baby not getting infected.
She adds that when an HIV positive mother is not given ARVs during pregnancy, there is a 44 percent chance of the baby getting infected with the virus.