World Breastfeeding Week 2022 takes place from 1 - 7 August. The World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) is dedicated to the protection, promotion and support of breastfeeding worldwide. This year’s theme is Step up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support.
Though recommendations by the World Health Organization is to breastfeed exclusively for the first six months and introduce complementary foods at six months while continuing to breastfeed for up to two years and beyond, this is not the reality for many women and their children.
However, with a supportive environment, mothers could move closer to this ideal. Here are a few facts about breastfeeding, its barriers, and recommendations on how communities can support this practice.
Four fantastic benefits for babies
1. Personalised nutrition
Breastmilk is filled with all the important nutrients that a baby needs to grow optimally. The same three food groups we eat daily (fats, carbohydrates and protein) are also found in breastmilk. The fats help the development of the baby's brain, the carbohydrates provide the baby with energy and the protein helps the baby grow at its best.
Though formula milk also contains these ingredients, formula tins are categorised for six months (e.g. 1 to 6 months) at a time and preparation changes only by weight of the infant. However, through biological processes breastmilk changes its composition as the baby's needs change, giving your baby a much more personalised nutrient profile.
2. Immune enhancer
Breastmilk optimally supports your baby’s immune system and reduces the baby’s risk for infections, diseases, and allergies. Colostrum, the first milk that is produced when the newborn baby is delivered, is known as the "first vaccination" for the baby due to its richness in disease-protecting antibodies. Breastmilk continuously contains antibodies, something that formula milk does not contain, and thus provides ongoing immune support for your infant.
3. Healthier weight
Breastfed babies are less likely to become obese and more likely to gain the right amount of weight. This is likely due to the composition of breastmilk, and infants learning to self-regulate intake better. With formula feeding, a mother may aim for their baby to finish a certain volume of milk as indicated on the tin, which may not match the baby’s need.
4. Smarter babies
Though more robust research is still needed, breastfeeding is positively associated with higher IQ and social intelligence. Though many factors play a role in a person’s intelligence, breastfeeding seems to be one. This can be due to nutritional reasons as well as emotional intimacy factors.
Five brilliant benefits for breastfeeding moms
1. Save time and money
There's no need to sterilise or prepare bottles or buy formula.
2. Assists in pausing pregnancy
Breastfeeding acts as a natural contraceptive as it can stop ovulation. Though this method is not 100% safe and depends on factors such as how often you breastfeed, whether you do both day and night feeds and whether you breastfeed exclusively, it is successfully used by many women.
3. Reduce cancer risk
There are also long-term benefits of breastfeeding for mom. The World Cancer Research Fund’s report on lactation and the risk of breastfeeding shows a decreased risk for developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer among women who have breastfed.
4. Bond better
Nursing is a special time you share with the baby. A hormone called oxytocin, also known as the "love hormone", is released when breastfeeding. This hormone induces feelings of happiness and can play a big role in the bonding process. The smell of breastmilk calms the baby and skin-to-skin contact during breastfeeding creates a sense of comfort between mother and baby.
5. Weight management
Women who breastfeed are more likely to lose weight post-partum, and return to their pre-pregnancy weight, compared to women who don’t breastfeed. This is especially beneficial if women have more than one child as it reduces the risk of overweight and the medical complications (such an increased risk for high blood pressure and developing type 2 diabetes) that often accompanies it.
So why aren’t more moms breastfeeding?
With all these benefits, it may seem like a no-brainer for women to breastfeed. However, it’s not that simple. For many mothers who would like to breastfeed or would consider breastfeeding their infants, there are certain barriers that discourage them from doing so. Though there are many barriers, here are a few of the common ones:
Knowing the full significance of breastfeeding
Although many moms know there are benefits, they are not always aware of the dangers of not breastfeeding, the protective qualities of breastmilk and the importance of the nutrients in breastmilk to their baby’s growth and development. Having little contact with other mothers who breastfed successfully also makes them more anxious as they don’t know what to expect as first-time mothers.
Social norms might discourage many moms from breastfeeding
In many communities’ formula feeding is perceived as the normal way to feed an infant, and practices aren’t challenged. This makes it difficult for a new mom to have a breastfeeding plan.
Some moms don’t feel comfortable breastfeeding in public areas
This is often because of the lack of available breastfeeding facilities and sexualisation of breasts which can deter a mom to continue breastfeeding as it becomes uncomfortable to do so.
The misconception that formula milk is equivalent to breastmilk influences some mothers to choose the formula route. Prior to regulations on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes, companies manufacturing formula milk freely and aggressively marketed formula milk to influence many healthcare professionals and mothers into believing it is an acceptable, convenient, and even superior, substitute to breastmilk. In some instances, such marketing still takes place, though it may be more subtle.
Returning to work
For many mothers it is difficult to continue breastfeeding once they return to work as many companies have no breastfeeding policy in place, so they are not given a break or room to express, or facilities to store their breastmilk.
Poor support from the family
Negative attitudes and beliefs about breastfeeding by the family can be discouraging. Families strongly influence a mother’s decision about starting and continuing breastfeeding.
Myths about breastfeeding
There are several misconceptions about breastfeeding, like women can’t produce enough breastmilk, or that the shape of the breast or nipple influences women’s ability to breastfeed. In reality, most mothers produce the right amount of milk, but due to reasons such as diseases, stress (e.g. financial, work, living conditions), this may be difficult for some.
These challenges can be overcome. Similarly, all sizes of nipples are compatible with breastfeeding, and though some mothers may find it to be easier to initiate breastfeeding, with time the baby will learn how to latch correctly onto the breast.
How to step up breastfeeding
In the spirit of this year’s WBW theme, here are some of the ways in which we can collectively support breastfeeding practices:
At-home partners can change diapers and do house chores to make the load easier on breastfeeding mothers. A mother's support system shouldn’t push or pressure, but allow for rest and relaxation when she needs it.
Mothers returning from maternity leave should have a private space equipped to breastfeed or express and store milk. Ideally, workplaces should also provide material on breastfeeding such as posters and pamphlets to increase awareness of the breastfeeding policy among all staff and make moms feel supported.
Community members play an important role in advocating for breastfeeding. They can share personal experiences and strategies and create a positive environment for the mother to make her breastfeeding choice.
Support groups for mothers can play an important role in the continuation of breastfeeding. Such groups can provide both practical information and emotional support to mothers.
Nurses, midwives, paediatricians, obstetricians, gynaecologists, dietitians and GPs all have a big influence on a mother’s decision to start and continue with breastfeeding. Providing accurate information on overcoming challenges to breastfeeding can strengthen a mother’s resolve to breastfeed.
For more information, visit the World Breastfeeding Week website, or the World Breastfeeding Alliance’s Warm Chain Support webpage.
Mothers can also access the Side-by-Side booklet with practical tips and information on breastfeeding.
Kirstin Allies and Katlego Kgoedi are final year BSc Dietetics students at Stellenbosch University.