Currently, in Tanzania, the paid maternity leave is for twelve weeks which only assures exclusive breastfeeding for three months if the mother has to go back to work. But scientific evidence requires that babies are exclusively breastfed for six months and breastfeeding can continue at least up to the age of two years or for as long as the mother and child wish.
Recently the Minister for Health announced the provision of hours for breastfeeding for nursing mothers who are employed. This is a great step that needs to be commended as it highlighted the importance of breast milk to babies.
I believe this is the beginning of steps towards extending maternity leave.
Breastfeeding isn’t a thing of the past
Different countries have adopted different policies on how long the maternity leave should be. In the case of the United Kingdom, statutory maternity leave is about 52 weeks. But in the case of the United States, it lags behind the rest of the world when it comes to maternity leave. US is the only industrialised country not offering any paid maternity leave.
Historically, developing countries particularly in Africa, did not have much problems with breastfeeding. This was mainly due to cultural and support systems which were strong in the communities as well as mothers weren’t expected to work to earn for the family, rather support and look after the children.
This was in the past, and had a huge downside of marginalising mothers in contributing to economic development as well as individual career development and talent growth.
Thanks to the efforts on empowering women that trends are increasingly changing. More women are becoming independent and emloyed in different positions, active in economic activities.
Unfortunately, among some of the elite women community, breastfeeding is wrongly perceived as the “thing of the past”. They tend to resort in formula feeding very early on.
This is a gross mistake for mothers who can breastfeed. Formula feeding should not be perceived as a proxy for a social status or rather economic well-off. Understandably, there are circumstances in which a mother may not be able to breastfeed, example mental illness. Formula feeding should be reserved for mothers where breastfeeding can’t be an option.
A priceless gift for your child
Breastfeeding has enormous number of advantages and frankly speaking nothing can exactly replicate breast milk.
Apart from the nutritional advantages of providing food, breast-milk is easily digestible, has antibodies to prevent early infections, the process improves bonding between the mother and the child, which is very important in psychosocial development of the child.
There are different strategies proposed to improve breastfeeding including education which is offered during antenatal visits.
Proper counseling on not only the importance of breastfeeding but also understanding the circumstances which surround the mother, adopt an ‘individual-centered-approach to improve breastfeed’ will encourage mothers too. Furthermore, early initiation, social support including partner involvement will improve rates of breastfeeding.
There are definitely challenges which are associated with breastfeeding; work, economic activities or any other reasonable limitation.
However, breastfeeding still remain the best ever present a mother would give to her child. Mothers and their partners must give priority and plan on how breastfeeding will be achieved as recommended, after childbirth.
Peer breastfeeding support groups may contribute in addressing wrong perceptions and providing support and encouragement among breastfeeding mothers.
In the future, mothers should be able to stand out proudly and tell their children; “If I ever gave you anything special, it was my breast milk.”
The author is a clinical epidemiologist and a research scientist working for Ifakara Health Institute.