My Journey of Political Courage, Resistance & Solidarity

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.

The Power of Partnering with a Breastfeeding Mother

I’ve learnt that we do the best we can with the tools we have! When a breastfeeding mother is empowered to trust her body, to believe her body is incredible and uniquely designed to offer tailor made nutrition to her baby, something beautiful has happened. She is equipped with the tools to breastfeed her baby – the mindfulness to trust her body. She may face hiccups along the way but she’ll have the innate strength to continue and reach out for support if needed.

Breastfeeding is the biological norm but it is not yet the social norm. When a mother chooses to breastfeed, every one of us has the responsibility to protect and support her. By doing so we’ve started a partnership with her.

Breastfeeding partnerships matter, a lot! Not just at home with a partner and family but also at work and socially. I was privileged recently to work with a South African company, assisting with compiling their progressive breastfeeding policy for new mothers returning to work wishing to continue to breastfeed/express. It’s times like this when everyone involved learns, and positively accepts the challenge to shift breastfeeding to become the social norm.

Although governments can encourage and protect breastfeeding, socially there is also a lot more tolerance and acceptance needed. I find that lack of support often comes from our social circles, so I encourage mothers to be kind and gentle in their response to the naysayers – it makes the breastfeeding journey more pleasant. Some will support you and some won’t. Those who choose not to, I’d encourage you not to let them get to you. It’s your baby and it’s your body, so just show them!

What I’ve learnt about the importance of partnerships to make breastfeeding work is that it may take some time but it will always be worth it!

My tips on how to become a breastfeeding partner: 

  • Start the breastfeeding conversation whilst your partner is pregnant, listen to her hopes and dreams for her breastfeeding journey
  • Suggest attending a breastfeeding preparation class together – this can prepare you both for the physical and emotional changes that are coming
  • It may mean you needing to reach out for breastfeeding support for your partner – do your homework and find out who offers this support in your area
  • And remember your biggest role is to support – this may be getting up during night time feeds and making her a cup of tea, or it could be a simple shoulder massage reminding her that you on this journey together

Increased Breastfeeding Could Save Over One Million Lives

Last week marked World Breastfeeding Week. Led by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, this was the 25th annual celebration that encourages, advocates, and educates the world about the benefits of breastfeeding.

Though most people understand that breastfeeding is associated with improved health outcomes for individual babies, few understand how far-reaching nursing has the potential to be. In fact, the impact on overall health is so great that UNICEF estimates 1,300,000 lives could be saved each year if more women breastfed their babies.

This infographic from Mom Loves Best demonstrates exactly how important breastfeeding is to the overall health of infants, their mothers, and society as a whole.

Benefits to the Individual

Babies begin reaping benefits from breastfeeding right away. Produced by the mother and tailored to each baby’s individual need, breast milk contains the perfect custom blend of vitamins, fat, and protein. Breast milk also contains powerful antibodies which protect the baby from a number of afflictions. These include common ailments such as respiratory infections, diarrhea, constipation, and ear infection.

The antibodies also protect babies from more serious ailments like meningitis, salmonella poisoning, HIB, and pneumonia as well as chronic illnesses such as asthma, allergic reactions, Crohn’s disease, and Celiac disease. Breastfeeding is also associated with reduced incidents of mental health problems, delays in motor skills, poor communication abilities, and vision problems.

Benefits of breastfeeding even extend into adulthood with a reduced risk of Multiple Sclerosis, schizophrenia and other mental health problems, cardiovascular disease, and many different types of cancer. The breastfeeding mother can also enjoy personal health benefits including a lower risk of postpartum depression, improved bone mass in certain areas, and a decreased risk of ovarian and uterine cancer.

Benefits to Society at Large

The significant health benefits experienced by both breastfeeding mothers and breastfed babies can have a great impact on societal health outcomes if scaled up. The improved health of society’s members reduces its overall medical costs, lowers illness-related work absences, and improves work productivity.

Extended breastfeeding also offers a more natural form of birth and population control and results in better care of society’s children. Communities can enjoy reduced pollution due to the decreased use of commercially-made formula and its associated disposable containers.

While breastfeeding is widely understood to have health benefits for babies, few connect the surprising health outcomes to significant societal socioeconomic advantages. But when you look at the research, it’s clear that breastfeeding really does have the potential to have a miraculous effect on society’s overall welfare.

That’s why, as we look forward from World Breastfeeding Week, it’s important that we all work together for the common good.

Jenny is a mother of two, a writer and a breastfeeding advocate. You can find her trying to help new moms overcome common breastfeeding struggles on her blog, Mom Loves Best.

Real Women’s Experiences of Breastfeeding

To mark World Breastfeeding Week, led by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, we asked women around the world to tell us a little bit about their experience of breastfeeding. We asked them about the partnerships they’d had that mattered most to them, as well as about the ones they wished they’d had but didn’t.

Did you have support in your choice to breastfeed?

“The biggest support came from my husband who made it possible for me to take the time required to breastfeed, especially in the first weeks. Before my child was born I also attended a breastfeeding course free of charge held by a civil society organisation with a teacher who was a former midwife. I also had the possibility to call the hospital with questions, which was very helpful.” – Rebecca, Sweden 

“My husband, mother, and family offered me support. But, only for the first 6 months. After that everybody asked me “when are you going to stop to breastfeeding?”” – Citlali, Mexico 

Photo credit: Julia Wiklander

What support do you wish you had during your breastfeeding journey?

“Breastfeeding classes and/or support groups, arranged by midwives.” – Tina, Denmark

“I really wish that I’d had more support from the health care system, and from the midwives I met during my pregnancy (the once I met in the postpartum period were great).” – Mia, Sweden

“I wish I’d had more time to stay with my baby so that I could breastfeed her every time she needed it.” – Kristen, Mexico

“It still feels like you have to defend why you are choosing to breastfeed for as ‘long’ as you are.” – Inge, Netherlands 

“I wish there had been lactation consultants at the hospital my baby was born in, and lactation consultants who could visit my home as leaving to go to the breastfeeding clinic during the very early days was overwhelming for me as a new mother.” – Jessica, Toronto 

What change do you want to see in your family/community/country when it comes to breastfeeding support for new mothers?

“I wish there could be more respect for the different decisions everyone makes and more information to sustain those decisions.” – Daniela, Mexico

Photo credit: Julia Wiklander

“More facts, more support, more tolerance of public breastfeeding.” – S, Finland 

“I would like the rhetoric around breastfeeding to change. Yes, breastfeeding is natural, but it’s not easy for new moms and babies. They need support in the very early days at the hospital with follow ups at home to address issues and reassure mom.” – Jessica, Toronto 

“Society needs to develop respect for mothers’ need and want to breastfeed. We need to improve public knowledge about breastfeeding.” – Citlali, Mexico

“I wish that there was more information and discussion regarding possible problems with breastfeeding, such as how painful it can be for the mother.” – Rebecca, Sweden

“Apart from every mother making their own choice in this, what I would like to see more of is having someone show a new mother how to breastfeed. Technique is so important to prevent pain and discomfort as well as to get a good latch and feed. Learning this early on, both mother and child, may help other mothers decide to keep going for a little longer. A lacatation specialist once told us moms-to-be how breastfeeding is a learned trait – this was such an eye opener! Even gorillas still learn from observing each other. So many people think it’s an instinctive know-how.” – Inge, Netherlands 

“Better support in terms of education classes on breastfeeding practises during gestation and follow-up support groups post-partum. Even a hot-line to call 24h during the first 6 months with a first child would be great!” – Tina, Denmark

“More time to pump breast milk while we’re in our office or at our jobs.” – Kristen, Mexico

“I hope that breastfeeding one day (soon!) will get the attention that it deserves. That it will be on top of agendas in terms of health and wellbeing for all. I wish that my children will learn about breastfeeding in school, and that it will become more normalized in our society.” – Mia, Sweden 

Photo credit: Inge Butter

Girls’ Globe is committed to ensuring that all mothers have the information, support and protection they need to breastfeed, if they choose to do so. Throughout the month of August, we will be sharing posts, videos and more in line with World Breastfeeding Week’s main objectives. Find more on our campaign page and follow on social media with #WBW2017!