Exclusive breastfeeding on decline, education needed says expert
If nothing else, Breastee, the breastfeeding mascot unveiled by the North West Regional Health Authority (NWRHA), has thrust the issue of breastfeeding into the spotlight.
According to one expert, the message is timely as Trinidad and Tobago is not doing very well when it comes to breastfeeding.
“We don’t do exclusive breastfeeding. People say they breastfeed but most people do mixed feeding with formula,” said Debbie Lewis, Executive Director of Mamatoto and a practising midwife.
Lewis, who champions exclusive breastfeeding with her clients said we haven’t done enough public education for people to be aware of the benefits of breastfeeding.
“Years ago everyone breastfed but we have gone so far away from that we now have to teach people about breastfeeding. There is a generation that thought you only breastfed if you were poor and the marketing of the formula companies took over so we thought if you could afford it why don’t you buy formula,” she said, critical of formula companies who flout the World Health Organisation’s code of marketing of breast milk substitutes.
The 1981 Code bars, among other things, the advertising of breast milk substitutes, the donation of breast milk substitutes to new mothers and point-of-sale advertising, giving of samples, or any other promotion device to induce sales directly to the consumer at the retail level, such as special displays, discount coupons, premiums, special sales, loss-leaders and tie-in sales.
Lewis said hospitals, in keeping with the Ministry of Health’s Breast friendly campaign, have discontinued the practice of giving mothers samples of formula.
“They are not supposed to be marketing to families that can’t afford it because they will water it down to stretch it and that is damaging to the baby,” she said.
According to international guidelines, babies should breastfeed exclusively for six months. That means, for the first six months of a baby’s life, the only food they need to consume is breast milk, nothing else.
Acknowledging that there are women who are unable to breastfeed, Lewis said that percentage is very small.
“But that is much lower than you will hear. Generally, the problem is that people don’t a have the education or support. Who is there support you when you go home? We send people home and then they go back to the health centre or paediatrician by six weeks but by then the damage is done, they’ve given the baby formula,” she said.
Lewis said people just cannot come to terms with the fact that a baby feeds often and that breast milk is sufficient.
“It is important because it is the perfect food for the baby, it has the right balance of protein for the brain to develop. Many recent studies show the benefits to baby, it is good for their IQ, they get sick less, fewer infections, less gastrointestinal problems and with the mother, there is decreased the risk of cancer, weight loss, plus economic benefits because you don’t have to spend any money.”
“The other thing we like to do, and some health care providers recommend this, is feeding the baby solid food before six months. They don’t even need water. Their gut is not ready for anything other than milk until they are six months old,” she said.
She said by giving babies solids their bodies can’t handle, we are setting them up for obesity later in life.
“We are depositing fat cells in them and I believe that is why we have such a proliferation of chronic diseases, it is a contributing factor,” she said.
She applauded the Ministry of Health for its thrust to make all hospitals baby friendly in keeping with the WHO and UNICEF’s ten-step guidance to increase support for breastfeeding in health facilities that provide maternity and newborn services.
The Ten Steps to Successful Breastfeeding underpin the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative, which both organisations launched in 1991. The practical guidance encourages new mothers to breastfeed and informs health workers how best to support breastfeeding.