Government should lead the march to support breastfeeding

Centre breastfeeding support on mothers and not the mechanics
Government must be at the forefront of encouraging and supporting breastfeeding(Photo: Freepik)

South Africa celebrated World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) earlier this year when South Africa was coming to terms with the devastating news of children in the  Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal dying from severe acute malnutrition. 

Most shockingly, in January and February alone, 199 children succumbed to malnutrition in hospitals across the country.

This national nutrition crisis compels South Africans to reflect on the importance of breastmilk in not only helping children survive but also helping them thrive. Breastmilk is the most important source of nutrition after a child is born – and the only food source they need for the first six months.

Yet in South Africa, the number of exclusively breastfed infants is just 32%, among the lowest rates in the World. Exclusive breastfeeding is the practice of feeding children breastmilk only and no solid food or water in their first six months of life.

Make breastfeeding the norm

Government and society have a crucial role in ensuring breastfeeding are encouraged within the healthcare sector and the norm in society as it is a vital driver of optimal nutrition in infants and young children. 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) has set long-term global nutrition targets that require, and in turn, depend on, universally prescribed breastfeeding practices. South Africa has committed to achieving these through its national health policies and planning and performance management systems. According to the WHO guidelines, breastfeeding has real health benefits for both mother and child, and several approaches are in place that help protect and promote breastfeeding.

These include the maternity protection convention, which promotes longer leave days during maternity leave, the adoption of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes, provision of supportive health services with infant and young child feeding counselling during all points of contact with caregivers and young children, such as during antenatal and postnatal care, well-child and sick child visits, and immunisations.

Laws protect mothers

South African laws protect the mother’s right to breastfeed in the workplace. The Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child guarantees breaks for breastfeeding moms. This means all women returning to work can take up to two 30-minute breaks every day for breastfeeding or expressing purposes until their child is six months old. These are important tools we can use to realise bright futures for the next generation, and more South African employers should be taking the lead, particularly if one considers the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding to the economy- breastfed babies are healthier and smarter, and workplaces who support moms have more loyal employees.

The importance of breastfeeding cannot be understated. Breastmilk is a critical building block for children’s growth and brain development. Breastfeeding helps lower the risk of childhood obesity and, importantly, reduces the chances of death from diarrhoea, which infants can be vulnerable to, as we have been painfully reminded.

The benefits of breastfeeding extend to mothers as well. Breastfeeding has been known to reduce the risk of breast and ovarian cancer. Successful exclusive breastfeeding can be made difficult by certain factors at home or work. Identifying and overcoming these barriers can help bring about breastfeeding-friendly environments.

Families and communities have a role to play

Families and communities are great support systems and play a vital role in successful exclusive breastfeeding when they acquaint themselves with the needs of breastfeeding mothers by creating an environment for breastfeeding and having access to nutritious food. Family members may feel the need to introduce solid foods, tea, or water to babies before six months, believing that a child is not getting enough nutrition from breastmilk alone.

This can be harmful to children, though, as they are not yet physically ready to process water or solids at that stage. In this regard, family members can play a valuable role by refraining from this and encouraging mothers to breastfeed exclusively. What can government do here?

If our society is to ensure that children grow up healthy, we will need to see to it that breastfeeding is promoted and supported.

We therefore call on Health Minister Joe Phaahla to publicly acknowledge companies that have successfully introduced breastfeeding rooms as a way of encouraging continuous breastfeeding and nutrition in the early stages of a child’s life.     

Government needs to take the issue of child malnutrition and stunting seriously by putting malnutrition on the agenda as a means of paving the way forward to get to zero stunting Breastfeeding is a pivotal nutritional investment that benefits communities, companies and our entire society. Now is the time to support it.  – Health-e News


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