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Op-Ed: It takes a village to breastfeed a child

7 August 2017 - (By Yolanda Booyzen) - One of the smartest investments that a country, a community and a family can make is to promote breastfeeding.

This is the message spread  by UNICEF, the World Health Organisation (WHO) and other international organisations that are promoting the benefits of breastfeeding during World Breastfeeding Week. The multiple advantages offered by breastfeeding include the most commonly known benefits of exceptional nutritional value, economic viability and cost-effectiveness, the prevention of childhood diseases, increased brain development in babies and a decreased risk of diabetes and some cancers in mothers.



Larissa Waters breastfeeding in the Australian Parliament
(Photograph: Lukas Coch/AAP)

Breastfeeding sounds like the ultimate elixir for health and well-being, but it is important to take note of two fallacies that exist within the breastfeeding paradigm. The first of these is that all mothers are physically capable of successfully breastfeeding their babies. However, some mothers are, for perfectly valid reasons, not able to breastfeed and endure excessive criticism and outright condemnation from healthcare workers, partners, family, friends and even strangers. Feverish proponents of breastfeeding, for example the La Leche League, disapprove of mothers feeding their babies formula milk.  Mothers who struggle or are incapable of breastfeeding are left feeling that they are unfit and even selfish if they do not nurture their young as prescribed by the WHO, which recommends that all babies should exclusively consume breastmilk for the first six months of their lives.

The second fallacy is a result of the female body politic in an overwhelmingly patriarchal society and goes beyond the biological limitations to breastfeeding. Although the breastfeeding agenda is promoted and advocated for on a global scale, the irony is that the physical act of feeding a child naturally remains a contentious taboo in society. It is frowned upon when practised in public spaces and women are criticised with bigoted responses such as ‘I don’t care if she does it, but I do not want to see it’ or ‘It makes me uncomfortable’. The act of feeding a baby is overshadowed by society’s unwillingness to allow women to have full autonomy over their own bodies and the health of their children. It’s a ludicrous catch-22 situation.

Apart from breastfeeding in public, another major challenge within the female body politic is to sustain the production of milk and breastfeeding when mothers have to return to work after their maternity leave (which by law is four months in South Africa). Once mothers return to the workplace, they need to either stop breastfeeding or pump out the excess breastmilk to sustain lactation. Very few institutions and companies offer a safe and clean space for mothers to express their breastmilk, let alone provide cooling facilities to keep the milk from spoiling. Most women have to go to public toilets while others use their vehicles (if they have the luxury of owning one) to express breastmilk. It is outrageous that the feeding of our offspring is consigned to the unhygienic confines of public toilets.

Women who nurse in public and express breastmilk are constantly under fire, both here and abroad. In the US, Elizabeth Beck excused herself from a meeting to express breastmilk and was subsequently called ‘disgusting’ by Donald Trump (the poster man-child of patriarchy). The Australian Senator Larissa Waters became the first woman to breastfeed in the Australian Parliament and she was both lauded and abhorred for her brave and exemplary normalisation of breastfeeding. In South Africa, Maggie Marx expressed milk in an office at the University of Cape Town and realised with disgust that a colleague was watching and filming her. Criminal charges were laid against the offender.

As far as I know, there are no facilities at universities in South Africa where staff members, students and visitors can safely breastfeed, express breastmilk or change nappies. During a recent visit to Google’s offices in Bryanston I noticed that they had a nursery room, but it had apparently only been installed after one of the more senior members of staff had had a baby. This is not extraordinary for Google, known for their innovative and convenient work spaces, but it does demonstrate that change happens slowly. The provision of safe spaces for breastfeeding and the expression of milk should be the norm in South Africa. Ideally, a nursing mother should be able to choose HOW, WHEN and WHERE to feed her baby, but the destigmatisation of nursing in public remains a challenge. The most urgent action we can take is to provide safe and secure spaces where mothers (and fathers) can feed and nurture their children.

Why are these facilities not yet available at South African universities? We need staff, students and other stakeholders to request universities to mainstream the holistic support of families by providing these essential facilities, and perhaps also other value-adding services such as crèches or nursery schools, in the near future. It takes a village to raise a child, and there is no better place to demonstrate this symbiosis within the community than at public institutions such as universities.

Yolanda Booyzen is Manager: Communications and Marketing for the Centre for Human Rights at the University of Pretoria.

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