Simeca Alexander-Williamson | Step up for breastfeeding
Breastfeeding provides more than just nutrition for your newborn. It supports bonding and facilitates healthy, emotional development from birth. The first milk that is secreted, the colostrum, is your baby’s initial source of immunity as this thick and sticky substance is very high in antibodies, protecting your baby from infections.
National Breastfeeding Week 2022 was observed from September 18 to 24 with the theme “Step Up for Breastfeeding: Educate and Support”. We need to recognise that breastfeeding is not restricted to a mother and her child. It extends far beyond that. Mother and child are in a family, a community. A baby is in the environment of his or her caregivers, and a mother is within a workplace culture. Both exist in a society that is highly influenced by policies and cultural norms. This year’s theme is quite fitting as the saying goes “we all fear what we don’t understand”.
Breastmilk is unique in its makeup, and despite research and effort, there still has been nothing created exactly like breastmilk. A mother’s milk is specifically designed to meet the needs of her offspring as it changes from one nursing session to another. Depending on what is happening in the environment, the mother’s body, or the baby’s body, the milk produced will be appropriate. For example, the milk of a mother who has given birth to a preterm baby will be higher in fats and proteins than the mother of a baby born full term. This occurs because these nutrients are of higher importance to a preterm infant to facilitate the continuous development of organs as well as rapid weight gain at this time.
All the nutrients your baby needs for the first six months or 180 completed days is present in breastmilk. As a result, your baby needs nothing else – no water, no juice, no tea – nothing else, as breastmilk is sufficient. The act of feeding your child solely breastmilk during this time is referred to as exclusive breastfeeding, and mothers are encouraged to do so followed by complementary feeding, which is introducing age-appropriate foods while still offering breastmilk. The World Health Organization (WHO) and the American Association of Paediatrics (AAP) recognise that breastmilk contains properties that are still beneficial to the child that consumes breastmilk up until two years of age and beyond. It is important to note that expressing breastmilk (removing milk from the breasts) and feeding it to your baby using an appropriate feeding tool is still considered breastfeeding.
Breastmilk is easily digestible, and it is highly unlikely that an exclusively breastfed baby who is fed on demand (for as often and as long as a baby needs) will overfeed. Studies have shown that babies who breastfeed tend to have higher IQs. Because breastmilk is the perfect nutrition for an infant, breastfed babies are less likely to become overweight or obese, and this trend continues up until adulthood. Artificial feeds contain additional fats and sugars that a baby doesn’t need, and this contributes to a higher caloric intake as well as the introduction to sugars that influence a baby’s taste as he or she grows older.
BENEFITS FOR MUM
While breastmilk was created for babies, it is paramount that we do not negate the significance of breastfeeding for the mother. Breastfeeding allows the release of oxytocin, which promotes faster healing and facilitates the return of the uterus to its pre-pregnancy state. The closeness between a mother and her child and the release of hormones supports bonding, allowing a mother to love and instinctively care for her newborn.
Breastfeeding utilises lots of calories, and once a mother isn’t consuming excessive calories on a daily basis, many women have attributed their weight loss to breastfeeding. With the prevalence of non-communicable diseases (NCDs) currently plaguing our population, one significant benefit of breastfeeding is that it lowers a woman’s risk for the development of NCDs such as diabetes and hypertension as well as breast and ovarian cancers.
According to the United Nations Children Fund (UNICEF) “on average, Jamaican mothers only breastfeed exclusively for three weeks, while only twenty-four per cent (24 per cent) of mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies up to six months”. This figure takes into account the number of women and babies that are missing out on the benefits of breastfeeding. One in eight persons has diabetes, one in three has hypertension, and one in four individuals is unaware that they are living with either of these conditions. Needless to say, if we can encourage and enable more mothers to breastfeed, we will strengthen the ammunition in our fight against NCDs!
EDUCATION IS KEY
Education is key in dispelling many myths associated with premature weaning and the inhibition of exclusive breastfeeding. In the past, it was thought that breastmilk was insufficient and babies needed water or needed to be supplemented prior to six months, and these murmurs continue to spill from grandparents to our younger generation today. We need to step up efforts to properly inform the population so more mothers will feel empowered in their ability to nourish their children and so that breastfeeding will become the norm. In a time such as this when we are experiencing high levels of food insecurity, it should be comforting to know that nature allowed a mother to feed her child with no financial cost attached. Breastfeeding is, technically, free.
The benefits of breastfeeding have been repeatedly evidenced. Support exists when we make ourselves available to defend breastfeeding at all levels, at all costs. Onlookers should refrain from negative comments when a mother is seen breastfeeding, but rather, offer her some assistance in allowing her to comfortably nourish her child. Workplaces can be supportive by effecting adequate maternity and paternity leave as well as providing a private space and time for a mother to express her milk once she returns to work. We have seen a few companies adopting such practices – establishing an official “lactation room”. Kudos to them! We encourage other companies to follow suit. Nurseries need to equip their facilities and staff with the tools to store and feed expressed breastmilk.
The Government has put some measures in place, supporting our local hospitals by facilitating the implementation of the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, with the Mandeville Regional Hospital most recently gaining this status. We look forward to the Government to continuously step up its efforts through policy to ensure that this tool – breastfeeding - is leveraged and appreciated for what it is worth.
Let us all do our part to educate ourselves and others and increase awareness and support for breastfeeding.
- Simeca Alexander-Williamson is a lactation consultant and advocacy officer at the Global Health Advocacy Project at the Heart Foundation of Jamaica. Send feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org