SA still has a long way to go to reach global breastfeeding targets, says health minister

Minister of Health, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, is urging mothers to breast feed their babies.
Minister of Health, Dr Zwelini Mkhize, is urging mothers to breast feed their babies.

While exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a baby’s life has steadily increased in South Africa over the past decade, the country still has a long way before reaching global targets, says Health Minister Dr Zwelini Mkhize. 

Breastfeeding in this period has been proven to prevent infections. It also provides the necessary nutrients and liquid that a baby needs to grow and develop optimally. 

Little support from families and employers

According to the country’s latest Demographic and Health Survey, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months tripled between 2003 and 2016, but decreases thereafter. 

Mothers returning to work with little to no support from families and employers are among the reasons attributed to a decline. In some cases, HIV-positive mothers don’t exclusively breastfeed their babies out of fear of transmitting the virus to them. 

Mkhize says baby food manufacturers need to be monitored to ensure regulations are adhered to as stipulated in government guidelines, which prohibit the marketing of breast milk substitutes and complementary foods to children under the age of three years. This is also in line with World Health Organization guidelines.

“These resolutions ensure there's a proper use of infant formula when these are medically indicated. The competition with formula manufacturers is something that we have to watch. [Formula] works well when there’s a real problem and there are challenges with the mother,” he says. 

Work a leading barrier

The United Nations Children’s Fund (Unicef) also encourages breastfeeding after six months. Unicef’s Sanjay Wijesekera says it will help reduce stunting in children under five years.

“In South Africa, 27% of children under five years are stunted. Stunting isn’t just about being short but it is about learning and later on in life, earning. And we know that children who achieve their full growth potential are able to do that a lot more,” he says.  

Amongst other recommendations, Wijesekera suggests maternity leave laws be amended in order to allow mothers more time to breastfeed.

“We know that work is one of the leading barriers to breastfeeding and contributes to a mother’s decision to stop breastfeeding early. One study on breastfeeding indicated that interventions such as maternity leave and workplace support can lead to about a 30% increase in breastfeeding rates. Currently, South Africa provides for four months of maternity leave when the global recommendation for breastfeeding is a full six months,” he adds. 

World Breastfeeding Week runs from August 1 to 7.

– Health-e News 

Image credit: iStock

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