August 1st marks the beginning of World Breastfeeding Week, observed around the world to bring attention to the importance of breastfeeding for a child’s life, health and well-being. This year’s theme is “Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers,” a theme which emphasizes the importance of kangaroo care. The week’s activities are coordinated by World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), which was established in 1991 to implement the Innocenti Declaration on the Protection, Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding.
The benefits of breastfeeding to children’s health are well known and well documented. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding is one of the single most effective ways to promote child survival and child well-being. WHO estimates that if all children were breastfed within an hour or birth, exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives, and partly breastfed for up to the age of two years, over 200,000 child lives would be saved every year. While breastfeeding can be essential to a child’s survival and basic health, its benefits are far reaching, and a recent study has also linked breastfeeding to a higher IQ. WHO, UNICEF and other stakeholders have adopted a globally accepted recommendation of six months of exclusive breastfeeding as the optimal goal for babies around the world.
Yet, despite convincing scientific evidence demonstrating the indisputable benefits of breastfeeding, less than 40% of children between 0 and 6 months are exclusively breastfed globally. While the reasons behind low breastfeeding rates are complex, more often than not one or several of the following reasons are at least partly to blame:
- Inadequate and unaffordable maternity health care services: When women lack access to proper maternity health care, they might be unaware of the importance and benefits of breastfeeding, and unable get the support they may need if they are facing challenges with nursing, such as not being able to produce enough milk, or finding breastfeeding painful. Ensuring that women can access proper, affordable maternal health care services is crucial in the promotion of good breastfeeding practices.
- Short or non-existent maternity leaves: As only a handful of countries offer maternity leaves of 6 months or longer, most mothers would have to continue to breastfeed after returning to work to meet the recommendation of 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding. For many mothers, balancing breastfeeding with work can become too draining, and breastfeeding rates tend to drop notably after mothers return to work.
- Inflexible work place arrangements: Mothers wanting to breastfeed after returning to work are often faced with a reality of their place of work lacking a private and clean space for pumping milk, no place for storing breast milk, and lack of flexibility in terms of breaks required for moms to pump at work. In the United States, the “Break Time for Nursing Mother” legislation made it mandatory for employers to provide nursing moms with access to both the required breaks, and a space to pump milk at the work place. Similar laws are needed all over the world, and information about laws and policies relating to breastfeeding should be made more readily available to ensure that nursing moms are aware of their rights.
- Stigma associated with public breastfeeding: As normal and as crucial as breastfeeding is for babies’ well-being, public breastfeeding still causes controversy around the world and nursing mothers find themselves shamed and shunned to nurse in dirty toilets or made to feel like they shouldn’t be leaving their homes until they no longer have to breastfeed their babies. Eliminating the stigma and standing up against the hypocrisy that surrounds public breastfeeding is essential for mothers to feel comfortable breastfeeding their babies, whether at home or in public.
- Aggressive baby formula marketing: Campaigning by infant formula companies has also been found to have a negative impact on breastfeeding rates, for example in East Asia as well as in Mexico.
The decision of breastfeeding is often attributed solely to mothers. However, for many mothers the situation is much more complicated. It is also important to remember that even in the most ideal situation, some mothers will not breastfeed for six months, and the reasons for that can be complicated, from simply not being able to produce enough milk to the mother being on medication that prevents her from breastfeeding. Guilting mothers to breastfeed is never the right approach – providing them with proper maternity care, equipping fathers, partners and extended family with skills to support breastfeeding mothers, ending stigma around public breastfeeding and implementing laws and policies that make it easier for working mothers to breastfeed are all positive tools that can be extremely effective in ensuring that breastfeeding rates continue to increase – not decrease.
Breastfeeding is not only a child well-being issue, it is also a women’s issue and a feminist issue.
We all, as individuals, partners, husbands and wives, families and societies have a role to play in ensuring that all babies get the best possible start to life, and that all mothers can have the best possible circumstances for breastfeeding their children at home, in public, or after returning to work. Girls’ Globe wishes all mothers and families around the world a Happy World Breastfeeding Week, and we encourage all of our readers to step forward to support breastfeeding mothers all around the world!
Are you a breastfeeding mom who wants to contribute to ending stigma around public breastfeeding? Send us a photo of yourself breastfeeding, with a quote about why you think breastfeeding is important. Photos can be submitted to firstname.lastname@example.org, and they will be shared on our blog and through our social media!