International Breastfeeding Week, like most health awareness weeks, is quickly forgotten – until it is time to mark it again the following year. What remains constant though is the staggeringly low levels of exclusive breastfeeding estimated for South Africa.
Most mothers understand the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, yet they seem to experience barriers that make it difficult to persist with this choice. The data tells us that although 88% of South African mothers initiate breastfeeding almost immediately after the baby is born, only 8% exclusively breastfeed until the baby is six months old.
I often chat to pregnant moms who intend to breastfeed their babies exclusively until they are at least six months, but the lived experience of this tough choice often means that they have to switch to formula milk sooner than they would have liked to. When you explore the reasons why, the common theme is that it is tough and difficult to do without support.
Considering the benefits of breastfeeding – protective against certain cancers for mom, full of nutrients and antibodies for baby and great for brain development – we as South Africans should be doing more to enable moms to make the best choices for their children.
This past week the Limpopo Provincial Department of Health, in honour of International Breastfeeding Week, launched a breastfeeding room for their breastfeeding employees. Such simple and relatively inexpensive policy changes make employees feel supported and, most importantly, seen in the workplace.
South African laws protect the mother’s right to breastfeed in the workplace. The Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child guarantees breaks for breastfeeding moms. This means all women who are returning to work can take up to two 30-minute breaks every day for breastfeeding or expressing purposes until their child is six months old. More South African employers should be following the lead of the Limpopo department of health, particularly if one considers the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding to the economy- breastfed babies are healthier and smarter and workplaces who support moms to breastfeed exclusively have more loyal employees.
Members of the public and businesses can also play an important role in creating supportive spaces for breastfeeding. In recent months Spur has been applauded for implementing a breastfeeding friendly policy in all of their restaurants. Such gestures are very important as they affirm moms who are breastfeeding and enable them to breastfeed longer.
We all have an important role to play in ensuring that the next generation is given the best possible start in life. A breastfeeding nation is a thriving nation. This breastfeeding week, let’s make sure we celebrate and support the mothers of our nation. DM
Dudu Mkhize is a communications specialist at Grow Great Campaign. The Grow Great Campaign is an organisation that aims to achieve a stunting free generation by 2030.