WORLD BREASTFEEDING WEEK

Why it's still hard to achieve exclusive breastfeeding

Mothers grapple with short maternity leave, lack of institutional policies to support breastfeeding staff, lack of food, lack of knowledge and lack of physical and emotional support

In Summary

• The theme for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, “Empower Parents, Enabling Breastfeeding”

• This calls for the empowerment of parents to achieve exclusive breastfeeding right from conception.

A screenshot of Kwale woman representative Zulekha Hassan with her baby in the chambers
A screenshot of Kwale woman representative Zulekha Hassan with her baby in the chambers
Image: COURTESY

By Dr Sikolia Wanyonyi, Obstetrician Gynaecologist, Dr Rose Kamenwa, Paediatrician and Mary Mathenge, Lactation Manager at Aga Khan University Hospital, Nairobi

Breast milk is the best food for a newborn baby. No commercial-made baby formula, or any other food or drink can match breast milk. For optimal growth and development, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that babies should be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. Thereafter, one should continue breastfeeding, supplementing with complementary feeds until the baby is two years old and beyond.

The theme for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, “Empower Parents, Enabling Breastfeeding”, calls for empowerment of parents to achieve exclusive breastfeeding right from conception.

 

However, the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding in Africa, including Kenya, is less than the recommended standard. Major obstacles cited to hinder exclusive breastfeeding include medical challenges, short maternity leave, lack of institutional policies to support breastfeeding staff, lack of food, lack of knowledge and lack of physical and emotional support.

MEDICAL CHALLENGES

Medical challenges especially affect mothers living with HIV-Aids, or women on medical treatment that is contraindicated for breastfeeding like cancer.

Mothers living with HIV should breastfeed for at least 12 months and may continue breastfeeding for up to 24 months or longer (similar to the general population), while being fully supported for antiretroviral therapy adherence (see the WHO consolidated guidelines on the use of antiretroviral drugs for treating and preventing HIV infection for interventions to optimise adherence).

In settings where health services provide and support lifelong antiretroviral therapy, including adherence counselling, and promote and support breastfeeding among women living with HIV, the duration of breastfeeding should not be restricted.

Breastfeeding is safe for cancer mothers unless being treated with chemotherapy, or hormonal therapy. Nursing mothers undergoing, or scheduled to start chemotherapy treatments should stop breastfeeding until after treatment which is usually between three to four months. Radiation treatment can reduce breast milk production, cause the mother to produce very little if any milk at all. For such mothers, formula milk is recommended as an alternative to breastfeeding in order to avoid transmitting harmful medication from the mother to the child.

To promote exclusive breastfeeding, interventions should be delivered in a combination of settings by involving health systems, home and family and the community environment concurrently.

 

Breast milk formation starts as early as 28 weeks of pregnancy. In order to ensure steady and continued formation of breast milk, hospital antenatal clinics are urged to initiate and provide the parents with necessary knowledge all throughout the pregnancy period, delivery and post-natal for them to support each other both physically and emotionally to get a constant supply of breast milk.

Breastfeeding mothers at Pumwani Hospital grounds during the celebrations of World Breastfeeding Week
Breastfeeding mothers at Pumwani Hospital grounds during the celebrations of World Breastfeeding Week
Image: PATRICK VIDIJA

NUTRITION, MATERNITY LEAVE 

Pregnancy and breastfeeding place extra demands on the mother’s body. To meet these demands, they need to think about what is best to eat and drink. Good nutrition in pregnancy helps the mothers to stay healthy and energetic and to prepare for taking care of the new baby. Through breast milk, the baby eats everything the mother eats and therefore, the best way of giving the baby a healthy diet is for the mother to eat a healthy diet.

Mothers should eat a balanced diet rich in folic acid, vitamin D, iron and calcium. Such can include liver, kidneys, green vegetables, plenty of fruits and fluids. Breastfeeding mothers should avoid alcohol, smoking, caffeine and self-medication as these can cause harm to the baby either in the uterus or through breast milk. 

The standard maternity leave, usually three months, is not enough to promote exclusive breastfeeding. In some instances, mothers are made to work from home while still on maternity leave, or even forced to resume work before the three months lapse with threats of work termination. In addition, there is also the challenge of workplace support after maternity leave for breastfeeding rooms where mothers can express milk and storage facilities. Organisations should also consider introducing day-care centres at the workplace for breastfeeding mothers to promote exclusive breastfeeding.

In rural areas, working mothers experience similar, but more challenges than their urban counterparts coupled with lack of breastfeeding accessories like breast pumps for expressing breast milk, milk storage facilities, travelling for long distances in search of water leaving their babies unbreastfed for long hours. In such cases, babies are introduced to cow milk and complementary feeds early before the recommended period of six months for exclusive breastfeeding.

Empowering parents right from conception through to delivery and breastfeeding to achieve exclusive breastfeeding is crucial. It helps to reduce obesity, vulnerability to allergies and diseases, achieve optimal growth and higher baby IQ, and curb infant malnutrition by providing essential nutrients for a healthy baby.