It has been proved that exclusive breastfeeding for children under six months gives them a healthy start in life, with long–lasting immune benefits, but for many young and professional women, it has increasingly become hard play to juggle this maternal obligation with career demands.
This has seen many lactating mothers failing to religiously adhere to the proven regime of exclusively breastfeeding their babies and thereby introducing supplementary feeding at an early stage.
A young mother, Susan Muchena (25), says she was astounded by tales from her grandmother of how the latter breastfed Susan’s father for two years before weaning him off.
What made that revelation unbelievable is the fact that Susan, who works for a travel agency in Harare, could not exclusively breastfeed her one-year-old son for six months as recommended by health experts because she had to get back to work within that time frame.
“Due to work commitments,” she says, “that (exclusive six-month breastfeeding) would have been an impossible feat. So I had to introduce my baby to other foods.”
She says she would have loved to exclusively breastfeed her baby for six months, but she had to get back to work. Her situation is not peculiar, but resonates with many other professional nursing mothers.
A snap survey carried out by NewsDay among working mothers revealed that most of them were struggling to adhere to the World Health Organisation guidelines that recognise breastfeeding is optimal in the first two years of life — particularly exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months — which can determine the child’s survival chances.
Health and Child Welfare minister Henry Madzorera says the low rate of exclusive breast-feeding in the country is a cause for worry. This follows indications that breastfeeding trends have plummeted to low levels, pausing a threat to the health of infants.
The Zimbabwe National Nutritional Survey (2010) revealed that the exclusive breastfeeding rates have nosedived from 29% recorded in 2009 to a paltry 5,8%.
“We therefore need to start looking at what works and employ strategies to try and improve infant feeding practices,” Madzorera says.
Another young mother who identified herself as Mary Rukweza (27) says she got a new job while still nursing her four-month-old baby and it would not have augured well for her career prospects to seek maternal leave in the month she got her new job.
“I could not dare to ask for leave in the month I got the job so I could exclusively breastfeed my baby,” she recalls. “So I had to slowly introduce him to infant formula at four months. Apparently he liked and started preferring it to breast milk.”
Zimbabwe’s law provides for the right to maternity protection to certain categories of women, which includes 14 weeks leave in the private sector, and 12 weeks leave for those in the public sector, 100% job security during maternity leave, and an hour breastfeeding break per day for six months.
Although the breastfeeding provision looks ideal on paper, for many women, travelling home and back for purposes of breastfeeding their babies also comes with other costs and inconveniences. This has seen the women opting to introduce supplementary foods to their babies and they will only have to give them breast milk in the mornings and after work.
There have been calls to increase the feeding time allowed for mothers, from one to two hours, as this would give mothers time to travel to and from their workplace.
Rukweza says the other option, known as “express”, whereby the mother squeezes her milk into a bottle and it would be fed to the baby while she is at work has its hazards.
“Squeezing the breast milk is painful, and at times the milk doesn’t come out,” she says. “This is also something that needs strict hygiene on the part of the mother and the person who will feed the baby. If proper hygiene is not observed, the child can suffer from diarrhoea.”
She however says her baby grew normally, strong and healthy, despite the fact that he was exclusively breastfed for just four months.
Health experts also say children that are not properly breastfed are prone to illnesses as they grow up. Up to 15 000 children in Zimbabwe are reportedly chronically malnourished due to low, or lack of, breastfeeding.
Health workers have been asked to preach the gospel of exclusive breastfeeding and its benefits as it provides critical nutrients, protection against deadly diseases and fostering growth and development for children.
Introducing complementary foods before the child reaches six months, according to Siboniso Chigova from the Ministry of Health and Child Welfare, is risky as it can compromise the child’s development and growth.
“It increases the risk of diarrhoea because the complementary foods may not be as clean or as easy to digest as breast milk,” she says.
She adds it is also risky as the child will wheeze and become susceptible to other allergic conditions because the baby cannot yet digest and absorb non-human protein well. About 10% of all under-five mortality is attributable to not exclusively breastfeeding in the first six months of life.