Only 32% of South African moms are opting to exclusively breastfeed their babies – a statistic that can be seen as both good and bad depending on what side of the coin you’re looking at.
On the plus side, exclusive breastfeeding rates are actually at an all-time high in South Africa, having quadrupled over the last two decades from a lowly 8% in 2003. But, we still have one of the lowest breastfeeding rates in the world.
According to UK-based health economist Dr Subhash Pokhrel, head of the Clinical Sciences Department at Brunel University London, increasing the breastfeeding rate worldwide could benefit not only mothers and their children (owing to the widely reported health benefits of breastmilk), but also a country’s healthcare system and society at large.
Did you find it challenging to breastfeed your little one? Share your story with us and we may publish it. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.
Speaking at Medela’s 14th International Breastfeeding and Lactation Symposium in London this past April, Pokhrel made a business case for the promotion of breastfeeding, which would be particularly beneficial in developing economies like South Africa.
"If more women chose to breastfeed their babies, there would be fewer diseases among infants and the health system would therefore spend less money in treating those diseases. That money could be freed up to be spent somewhere else," he noted.
Citing a 2012 study conducted in the UK, Pokhrel and his team showed that England’s National Health Service (NHS) could save about £40-million a year by improving breastfeeding rates – the equivalent of about R760-million a year.
Acknowledging every women’s right to choose how they want to feed their baby, Pokhrel emphasised that huge economic savings could be made by simply supporting those women who have already made the decision to breastfeed. He further pointed out that, in the UK, while 80% of moms initiate breastfeeding at birth, the number drops to 0.8% by the time those babies reach six months.
The implication is that mothers are being let down by their government, the healthcare system, their societies and their support systems as they are not receiving adequate education around breastfeeding and they are not being supported in their quest to continue breastfeeding in the later months.
With this in mind, Pokhrel challenged governments and medical professionals in the lactation space to consider why modern-day society that would decentivise women from breastfeeding longer.
These might include the time it takes a woman to breastfeed her child, a lack of breastfeeding facilities for mothers (in public spaces as well as the workplace), limited maternity leave without pay, and a continued cultural stigma that shames women who breastfeed in public, among other reasons.
While Pokhrel’s statistics are focused on the UK market, South African women are faced with similar challenges that discourage them from continuing to breastfeed. So, what could South Africa be doing to better support women who choose to breastfeed their child?
1. Government is doing well, but it can do better
South Africa’s breastfeeding rate rose steadily under the guidance of former Health Minister, Aaron Motsoaledi, whose administration established the national Mother-Baby Friendly Initiative (MBFI), which aims to improve the care of pregnant women, mothers and newborns at accredited MBFI healthcare facilities.
Under Motsoaledi, government also clamped down on the marketing of breastmilk substitutes and established the rights of breastfeeding women in the workplace. While these were all positive steps in the right direction, the trajectory needs to continue under current Health Minister, Dr Zweli Mkhize, with improved rollout of various initiatives across all provinces.
2. Employers need to come to the party
About 90% of South African mothers return to work within a few months of giving birth, many within a week. While some mothers could continue giving their baby breastmilk once they return to work, few know they have the legal option to do so.
A mother returning to work before her baby is six months old has the right to two 30-minute breastfeeding or expressing breaks a day, which is the minimum amount of time required to maintain breastmilk supply.
During this time, employers are expected to provide mothers with a safe, comfortable, clean and private space to express milk, as well as an appropriate cold storage space for their expressed milk. Needless to say, toilets are not suitable facilities for pumping.
3. Hospitals and medical aids should encourage pumping (and need to promote education around it)
Few hospitals across South Africa have hospital grade pumps available to new mothers, which is especially crucial for mothers of NICU babies, whose decision to breastfeed exclusively is often compromised.
Similarly, only some local medical aids cover breast pumps as an external expense. This benefit can be improved across the board and should extend to patients on entry-level plans, not just those on premier or elite plans.
Education around breast pumps can also be improved significantly.
4. Society needs to get over itself
The #NormaliseBreastfeeding movement has done a lot to destigmatise public breastfeeding in recent years, but South Africa still has a long way to go.
More restaurants and retailers should proudly be promoting their breastfeeding-friendly policies and should be proactive in doing so (not only after there’s been an incident of mom-shaming).
Whether she chooses to breastfeed or decides to invest in formula, no mother should be made to feel bad about how she chooses to feed her baby, and it’s important that she’s adequately informed about the various options available to her, coupled with the right amount of support from government, the healthcare sector and society at large.
Listen to Samantha Herbst and her co-host Charlene Armstrong as they talk breastfeeding and breast pumps on their podcast, the Great Equalizer.
Did you find it difficult to continue breastfeeding, what with issues around breastfeeding in public, or with work commitments and other challenges?
Share your story with us and we may publish it. Do let us know if you'd like to remain anonymous.