Back in the day, breastfeeding a baby involved minimal hustle since most women were stay-home mothers. This made breastfeeding reasonably easy. But today, more women are struggling to balance between breastfeeding and their careers.
The World Health Organization (WHO) pronounces breastfeeding as a very important nutritional requirement for the health of babies and stipulates that breast milk should be the only food given to babies during the first six months of life. They advise that breastfeeding should continue in children up to two years. But that can be difficult for working mothers.
Sandra (not real name), a mother of one and a worker with a humanitarian organization in the West Nile region, has had a bad experience when it comes to breastfeeding. After giving birth to a baby girl, Sandra recalls only breastfeeding her for seven days because she needed to travel out of the country on short notice for work and take up her study scholarship concurrently. She only returned 15 months later.
This, she says, struck her so hard that she had to make a tough decision between staying back and looking after her daughter, who was preterm (one month early), or going to class over thousands of kilometers away to London. Sandra decided to work to keep her job and also take a study scholarship.
“The hardest part being a first-time mother without having your baby near is the recurrent dripping breast milk which stains blouses and sometimes leads to sore breasts,” she retorted.
For Sandra, she immediately got herself nursing pads that she would place in her bra to avoid the stains on the blouse. But this was not the only thing to worry about. She had enrolled her preterm daughter to SMA formula, a milk substitute.
“Since my mother was taking care of my child, I could not stop worrying about her health,” she said.
The Lancet, a medical journal, in a series of articles, highlighted women’s work as a major obstacle to optimal best breastfeeding. For working women, exclusive breastfeeding may not only be unrealistic, it is also draining and oftentimes overwhelming. It leads them to give up nursing early which puts their children at a risk of dying from preventable diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhea, and post-natal complications. World over, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their children within the first hour of birth.
The worries of Sandra caught up with her when her daughter was always in and out of hospital with frequent bouts of diarrheal and respiratory infections.
“I remember crying helplessly in my room when my mother told me the doctor had diagnosed my daughter with pneumonia, at six months. I was shuttered and for the first time I thought I was a selfish mother who never reconsidered her decisions to leave a preterm child,” she said. She, however, believes a fair share of women are determined but the environment is not always supportive of exclusive breastfeeding.
Many mothers, especially the working class, are substituting breast-feeding with bottle-feeding yet exclusive breastfeeding will yield better results than the most expensive baby formulae can deliver. Meanwhile, Esther (not real names), a 40-year-old civil servant (a teacher), a mother of three, says she breastfed her now seven-month-old baby boy exclusively for the first three months during her maternity leave before returning to work. During lunch break, she rushes home to at least breastfeed him and does it even at night.
“On certain days I do not produce enough milk to cater for him for the entire day; so, I also give him diluted cow’s milk, porridge and other soft foods,” she said. “It is difficult to juggle classroom and a baby, but I sacrifice for the health and wellbeing of my son,” she added.
Breastfeeding has many health benefits for both the mother and infant. Breast milk contains all the nutrients an infant needs in its first six months. It protects against diarrhea and common childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, and may also have longer-term health benefits for the mother and child.
Exclusive breastfeeding means that the infant receives only breast milk. No other liquids or solids are given, not even water. Breastfeeding also enhances the life of the child and helps them to bond with the mother.
According to The Lancet, despite its established benefits, breastfeeding is no longer a custom in many communities but the practice needs supportive measures at many levels, from legal and policy directives to social attitudes and values, women’s work and employment conditions, and health-care services to enable women to breastfeed.
As countries around the world commemorate World Breastfeeding Week, under the theme: “Empower Parents, Enable Breastfeeding”, political support and financial investment from government are needed to protect, promote and support breastfeeding.
The author is the Program Officer, – Civil Society Alliance for Nutrition Uganda (CISANU).