Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA
AS WE commemorate World Breastfeeding Week, I want to address the subject of breastfeeding from a mother’s point of view.
I will share my thoughts as a layperson, based on my own experiences. I will touch on the benefits of breastfeeding as relayed to me by health care providers during the times I was breastfeeding.
So on this unusual day early this year, I walked into the Children’s Hospital at the University Teaching Hospital with my 18- month-old baby. He was down with a cough and fever, and like any worried mother, I rushed him to the hospital.
After the nurses checked his temperature and weight, we joined the queue to see the doctor. Inside the doctor’s room, among the questions relevant to this topic that she asked were the age of the baby and if he was still breastfeeding.
When I answered in the affirmative, the doctor was pleasantly surprised and immediately engaged me in a discussion on the benefits of breastfeeding and we went on talking for about 30 minutes.
The paediatrician, a Ukrainian who has lived in Zambia for 11 years, was surprised to see a mother breastfeeding a one-and-half-year-old baby because Zambians, she said, wean their babies early.
She said most babies she had seen that day aged between 12 and 15 months had stopped breastfeeding.
The reason by many mothers she talked to was that they had weaned their babies because they were showing preference for breast milk over weaning foods such as porridge and nshima.
The doctor said the mothers had a wrong notion that breastfeeding tends to erode the baby’s appetite for other foods.
So to ‘protect’ the baby from developing malnutrition, mothers, often under the influence of non-medical staff such as friends, parents or grandparents, opt to wean babies prematurely.
This is wrong, according to the doctor, because when a baby is introduced to other foods, breastfeeding should continue until the child is two years old.
Well, I learnt that breast milk contains nutrients that a baby cannot find in other foods, including formula milk because God’s formula for breast milk is imitable.
Babies that are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life are usually healthy because breast milk has all the food, fluids and anti-bodies that a child needs.
And when they continue breastfeeding until the age of two, children often grow up healthily and they develop strong immunity against common sicknesses.
What this means is that babies that are weaned off early or those that aren’t breastfed at all are vulnerable to diseases common to the under-five age group.
I have also learnt during under-five clinics that babies that are adequately breastfed are likely to grow up into intelligent children.
Researchers associate the high intelligence quotient (IG) in humans to breastfeeding.
The paediatrician actually challenged me to breastfeed my baby until the age of two and check his level of intelligence as he grows up.
Despite her busy schedule, which often involves doing night shift, the doctor made sure to breastfeed her children for 24 months, and she says they are very healthy and intelligent.
I shared with her that I weaned my two older children at one year five months because in both cases I needed to travel.
But I promised her that this time around I would try and breastfeed my baby for two years because I wanted him to have a high degree of intelligence, apart from the other benefits of breastfeeding.
Actually before meeting the doctor that day, I had already made up my mind to breastfeed my baby for two years because I had come across some literature that associates a person’s IQ to breastfeeding.
The doctor told me that mothers in Europe where she comes from value breastfeeding because they know that it has immense benefits to a child.
She said people have a wrong notion that European women don’t breastfeed babies, and unfortunately women who opt not to breastfeed their babies see it as a sign of being civilised.
Peer pressure is another reason why mothers in Zambia wean their babies early.
Friends would often encourage them to stop breastfeeding before the recommended time because at some point they think that the baby is ‘old’ enough.
So some women are shy to breastfeed the so-called ‘old’ babies in front of friends and relatives.
But she said a woman who knows the benefits of breast milk and has made up her mind to breastfeed her baby for two years, should not listen to detractors.
Knowledgeable mothers should actually help to dispel wrong notions about breastfeeding because some of their peers speak and act out of ignorance.
For example, it’s not true that breast milk gets contaminated as the baby grows older. What is true is that with time, as the baby grows older, the nutritional value of milk changes to suit the baby’s changing needs.
According to the doctor, it’s equally not true that when a baby suckles from a pregnant mother, it can get sick.
In other words, there is nothing wrong with a pregnant woman continuing to breastfeed her baby until sometime before giving birth.
Although it’s recommended that a woman should space her children, when an unplanned-for pregnancy occurs, a woman can continue breastfeeding her baby.
Apart from that, the doctor shared that working mothers should not feel frustrated about the little time that they have to breastfeed after hours.
That little time goes a long way. But when at home, one ought to deliberately make a plan of catching up on lost time.
Working mothers also have a challenge of adhering to the recommended six months of exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months of a baby’s life.
In the formal sector, mothers go back to work when a baby is about 3 or four months, whereas in the informal sector, maternity leave is shorter or non-existent.
Many working mothers introduce weaning foods to the baby’s diet when maternity leave is about to end.
However, health care providers encourage such mothers to express milk and leave it in the fridge for the baby. Breast milk has a long lifespan and when frozen, it can stay for as long as six months.
In my view, it’s easier for shift workers and those who can manage to go home during lunchtime to do exclusive breastfeeding for six months.
Although it’s not an impossible mission, exclusive breastfeeding is a difficult thing to do for mothers who work eight hours in a day and those that go on until after hours.
However, I have seen a few working mothers who have done it by way of expressing milk and going home to breastfeed during lunchtime.
Personally, I could only do exclusive breastfeeding for four months. But I am glad that recently, I was able to breastfeed my baby until he was two years and two months old.
Happy World Breastfeeding Week to all of you mothers out there!
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Gender Focus with EMELDA MWITWA