Let’s make breastfeeding and work, work!

EBF: New moms in dire need of support, education
South Africa has one of the lowest national averages when it comes to exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) on the continent. (Photo: Freepik)

Lerato Mthunzi, Health and Allied Workers Indaba Trade Union (HAITU)  General Secretary

Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure long term child health and survival. But fewer than half of infants under 6 months old are exclusively breastfed – contrary to the recommendations of the World Health Organisation

Breastfeeding has many benefits for both the mother and the baby. It should be supported and promoted by health professionals, family members, employers and society at large. 

Breastfeeding is the natural and optimal way of feeding infants. It provides them with the best nutrition they need for their growth and development. It also has positive effects on the mother’s health, well-being, and  allows for the mother and baby to bond. 

Despite these advantages, many mothers face barriers and challenges that prevent them from initiating or continuing breastfeeding. These include lack of information, support, confidence, time, facilities and a lack of policies that enable breastfeeding. 

Breastfeeding in the workplace

Many workplaces do not support female employees through progressive maternity leave policies, which can enable women to breastfeed their children for as long as possible. This is why it is essential to raise awareness and educate mothers and their families about the importance of breastfeeding, and to create a supportive environment that facilitates breastfeeding. 

There are unfortunately too many employers in South Africa who hold very backward ideas about breastfeeding and maternity leave. Some are hostile to the idea that women must be paid for having a baby and taking time off to raise their newborns and ensure they adjust to life properly. 

Many women are forced to claim from the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF) during maternity leave, because the employer may put them on unpaid leave. Claiming from UIF for maternity leave has often caused problems because of the bureaucracy involved in the process. There are instances when women have been shocked by the low payout from the UIF. This forced them to return to work while their babies were still very young. 

In this article, we will highlight four key points on why breastfeeding plays an important role in raising healthy babies and building a healthy society.

Breastfeeding provides ideal nutrition for babies

Breast milk contains everything a baby needs for the first 6 months of life, and it provides it in all the right proportions. Its composition even changes according to the baby’s changing needs, especially during the first month of life. Breast milk is easily digested and absorbed by the baby’s immature digestive system, and it prevents constipation, diarrhoea and other gastrointestinal problems. Breast milk also contains antibodies, hormones, enzymes and other factors that help the baby fight off infections, allergies and chronic diseases and this is particularly important in the first few months of an infant’s life. Breast milk is always available, it is fresh and it is always at the right temperature for the baby. No other food or drink can match the nutritional quality and benefits of breast milk. It has been described as a type of “superfood” for babies. 

Breastfeeding protects the baby from illness

Breast milk is loaded with antibodies that help your baby fight off viruses and bacteria, which is critical in those tender, early months. This particularly applies to colostrum, the first milk that is produced after birth. Colostrum provides high amounts of immunoglobulin A (IgA), as well as several other antibodies that form a protective layer in the baby’s nose, throat, and digestive system. Breastfed babies have lower risks of respiratory infections, ear infections, diarrhoea, meningitis and sepsis. It also prevents necrotizing enterocolitis, a serious gastrointestinal problem that affects premature babies and causes holes in the babies’ intestines. Breastfeeding also reduces the chances of developing obesity, diabetes, asthma, eczema, leukaemia and other cancers later in life.

Breastfeeding benefits the mother’s health and wellbeing

Breastfeeding is not only good for the baby, but also for the mother. Breastfeeding helps the uterus contract after delivery, reducing blood loss and speeding up recovery. Breastfeeding also burns calories and helps the mother lose weight after pregnancy. According to the American Diabetes Association, it lowers the risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, cardiovascular disease and, it can help reduce diabetes in the mother. It has been found that it also releases hormones such as oxytocin and prolactin that promote relaxation, bonding and maternal care, and it can also delay the return of menstruation and fertility, which can help with family planning.

Breastfeeding supports the mother-baby relationship

Breastfeeding is more than just a way of feeding. It is also a way of expressing love, comfort and care. Breastfeeding creates a special bond between the mother and the baby that lasts a lifetime. Breastfeeding provides physical closeness, skin-to-skin contact and eye contact that enhances emotional attachment and communication. It helps the baby feel secure, calm and happy, whilst at the same time, it can help the mother cope with stress, anxiety and depression. It can also strengthen the relationship between the father or partner and the baby by involving them in other aspects of infant care such as bathing, changing diapers, playing and cuddling.

What can be done to encourage breastfeeding?

The Health and Allied Workers Indaba Trade Union (HAITU), plays a central role in the South African organised labour space by advocating for paid maternity leave, (the WHO recommends 18 weeks or 6 months or more paid maternity leave). The employer must also create space in the workplace where women can safely and privately express milk for their babies, in a clean space. Forcing a woman to express milk in the same toilet which is used by the majority of the workforce, is not a progressive solution. HAITU also advocates for paid time off for breastfeeding or expressing milk, upon returning to work, and flexible work options. We also recognise that we have to defeat patriarchy in the workplace in order to secure some of these reforms, because most workplaces remain intolerant spaces for female workers. The rights we are advocating for should apply to all women, regardless of whether they are on contract or are permanent employees. 

Breastfeeding is a natural gift that mothers can give to their children and it is also a rewarding experience that enriches the mother-baby relationship. However, breastfeeding is not always easy or possible for every mother. Some mothers may face difficulties or complications that require medical attention or professional guidance. Some mothers may need support from their families, friends or employers to overcome social or practical obstacles that hinder breastfeeding. Some may choose not to breastfeed for personal or medical reasons, and they should not be judged or criticised. Whatever the situation, every mother deserves respect, encouragement and assistance to make the best choice for herself and her baby. 

Breastfeeding is a matter of human rights, health and happiness for all and women should not have to choose between breastfeeding their children, and their jobs. Breastfeeding support is possible regardless of the workplace, or the sector. What is required is a shift in mentality in order to support it. It is the responsibility of all of us to ensure that we raise healthy children so that we can create a healthy society. This is why enabling breastfeeding should be non-negotiable in the workplace. 

This opinion piece was written by the Health and Allied Workers Indaba Trade Union (HAITU)  General Secretary Lerato Mthunzi. 

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