Earlier this year, I was glad to be present to support a close friend in the miracle that is child birth. I stood by her through her unmedicated birth plan navigated by calculated breathing and back rubs, and through the eventual contractions that culminated in the birth of a beautiful baby girl.
Being an afternoon of many firsts, I also guided them in their first bonding experience between mother and child – breastfeeding. Having gone through this myself (my daughter turns four next month!), I am glad to be able to support my friend and her baby through the recommended 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding and beyond.
Great news indeed, but the journey of breastfeeding is still laced with many social, economic and political challenges to be overcome. Culture remains a great influence on the uptake of positive breastfeeding practices, especially in the African context. Positive social and cultural beliefs and practices which associate breastmilk with intellectual development and general good health encourage breastfeeding. On the other hand, long-standing myths and misconceptions weaved through cultural beliefs continue to be perpetuated from one generation to another and influence breastfeeding outcomes.
I confronted many myths in my own breastfeeding journey:
Myth 1: Breast milk alone is not enough to support optimal growth
According to WHO, exclusive breastfeeding is the practice of feeding only breast milk (including expressed breast milk) and no other liquids or solids with the exception of drops or syrups consisting of vitamins, mineral supplements or medicine and oral rehydration solution(ORS). When I was breastfeeding my daughter, I often received unsolicited advice on why breast milk was not adequate. For example, I was advised to supplement breast milk with water so that the baby does not get dehydrated or wean her off at 3 months to reduce and/or prevent colic. What we know, though, is that breast milk’s composition changes from one feeding to another to meet baby’s physical, growth and developmental needs. Even over a single feed – it is higher in water content at first to quench the baby’s thirst and then the nutrient composition increases with time.
Myth 2: Breastfeeding is old fashioned & for poor people who cannot afford infant formula
I encountered social pressure from friends who felt that breastfeeding was old-fashioned and some wondered whether it was because we couldn’t afford infant formula. This meant that I received tins upon tins of infant formula with every visit. Needless to say, both baby and I boycotted any such offers – much to the chagrin of the gift bearers. The role of corporations in advancing aggressive marketing strategies that undermine breastfeeding and mothers’ confidence must be checked. The International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) (which monitors countries’ compliance with the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes) indicates that the world’s largest baby food companies are violating the Code which demands all communication to be ‘honest, truthful and not misleading’. Closely connected to this marketing gimmick is messaging that some mothers naturally do not produce enough milk. What this means is that a lot of young mothers ‘think’ they are choosing to breastfeed and then formula feed but in reality, they are actually responding to ‘profit-driven’ marketing strategies through advertisements and manipulation of health workers by corporations that eventually become passed on as culture.
Myth 3: ‘Evil eye’ if you breastfeed in public
Being the extrovert I am, this is a myth I encountered frequently! According to some African traditions, it is believed that if you breastfeed in public you could be watched by people believed to have an ‘evil eye’ – basically a glare associated with witchcraft. Apparently, this can result in breast milk production stopping prematurely or mothers developing breast sores. This, coupled with disapproving looks I had to contend with when breastfeeding in public, meant that I had to premeditate my movements and compromise on which functions I attended – especially if I was planning to go with baby. For most mothers, this may prompt them to avoid breastfeeding or stop altogether, especially when attending public gatherings or generally being in public.
The female body is too often considered public domain open to ogling and scrutiny. On top of this, breastfeeding within a hypersexualized culture reduces female breasts to sexual objects and the mere act of nursing is laced with sexual undertones. The combined effect is another common belief among young mothers – that breastfeeding for prolonged durations will make their breasts sag and consequently unattractive.
Not all mothers are able to breastfeed their babies for a huge variety of reasons and the choice to breastfeed ultimately rests with the mother. For me, the choice to breastfeed was an act of resistance to the hold of patriarchy and capitalism has on our minds, bodies, and lives. I contend that in addition to public health interventions to promote breastfeeding, it will take political courage, resistance and solidarity to truly interrogate the preconditions under which women can freely decide to breastfeed.