Before Josina Auma got married five years ago, she had imagined she would exclusively breastfeed her future children for the maximum number of months recommended by medical experts; six months.
She says: "My children must be like my older sister's children, who were exclusively breastfed. I lived with her when she started having babies, and I can attest to all the benefits her children derived from being exclusively breastfed. None of them ever fell seriously ill while growing up, much less spent a night in a hospital. Because of all this, I told myself that I would never deny my children exclusive breastfeeding."
A few months after Auma got married, her husband was transferred to the company's head office in Nairobi from Kisumu, away from the warm embrace of relatives.
Consequently, the new family had to start a new life all by themselves.
Before long, Auma landed a great job with her current employer. Within four years, the Information Communication Technology (ICT) professional in an upscale financial services outfit, was promoted twice, with a corresponding wage to make up for her increasingly busy schedule.
Notwithstanding, she regrets the lack of her employer to create a friendly atmosphere to encourage breastfeeding and the company's failure to allow her to spend a single day off after her maternity leave. Consequently, she failed to exclusively breastfeed her two children as she had always wished.
Medical experts and agencies such as the World Health Organisation document that babies fed only breast milk for the first six months of life get sick less often than babies fed with other liquids and foods. They have less pneumonia and other respiratory complications, fewer abdominal issues, fewer ear infections, and fewer allergies.
Researchers have established that the early months of a baby's life are essential to long-term development, including fortifying brain development. They also maintain that long-term breastfeeding has vast health benefits for mothers, including helping shed excess weight acquired during pregnancy and reducing the risk of certain cancers, including breast cancer.
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"Breastfeeding provides a baby with the body-building components specially suited to their health and development needs. Milk from animal and plant sources doesn't contain the components particularly suited to the infant," explains Dr David Ndonye, a gastroenterologist and immunologist.
"The first milk is colostrum, available in small amounts, and perfectly matches the baby's stomach size at birth. Breast milk increases daily as the baby's stomach grows to prevent the baby from overfilling its stomach. This is important while the baby learns to coordinate sucking, swallowing, and breathing," says Ndonye.
He continues: "Breast milk is the only food the baby needs for the first six months. It has all the nutrition and fluid that the baby needs."
In maintaining that breast milk should still be the baby's primary source of nutrition for the first year of life, the Doctor says: "Even after six months, it is important to continue breastfeeding. Breastfeed before each meal of solids, as the "first course."
As for working mothers, Dr Patrick Amoth, Acting Director General for Health, during the launch of the latest Kenya demographic and health survey last month, which noted that about half of babies below six months are not exclusively breastfed said, "practising breastfeeding at work makes societies work, as it provides vital health and nutritional benefits for children with positive lifelong impacts, building healthier populations and workforces for the future.
Women should not have to choose between breastfeeding their children and their jobs because exclusive breastfeeding is possible regardless of workplace, sector, or contract type." He also called for breastfeeding-friendly workplaces.
Experts and stakeholders in the health value chain share similar views regarding the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, with agencies such as UNICEF calling for at least six months of paid maternity leave, paid time off for breastfeeding, and flexible return to work options.
Lactation expert Esther Kimani says working mothers can store breast milk in their freezer, which can last for six months minimum. "Many mums already have a milk stash by the time they return to work in three months. Some mums have to pump three times at work, but there are also low-sound wearable breast pumps, which they can have inserted into their bra and pump while working, and nobody notices that they are pumping," she says.
Annually, August 1 to 7, World Breastfeeding Week (WBW) is commemorated. This year's theme is focused on making a difference for working mothers, with experts insisting that offering new mothers access to free education on updated breastfeeding best practices is a sine qua non for entrenching the practice.
The theme of this year's WBW set by the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), "Enabling breastfeeding: making a difference for working parents," serves as an urgent reminder for employers of labour and working parents to maximise the benefits of breast milk as the society strives to groom healthy babies and by extension, a healthy community.