Despite the joys of motherhood, first-time mother Teresa Paulus* when nursing her baby for the first time felt that breastfeeding was the most daunting task.
“When I gave birth (last year) I didn’t know how to properly breastfeed and the nurses, who were very rude, did not make my experience any easier,” she recalls.
The young mother says although she had prepared for breastfeeding by reading books and articles, none of it was useful when she had to actually feed her baby for the first time.
“My nipple cracked, because my baby was not properly latched on,” she remembers.
Breastfeeding is one of the most effective ways to ensure child health and survival, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
If every child was breastfed within an hour of birth, given only breast milk for their first six months of life, and continued breastfeeding up to the age of two years, about 800 000 child lives would be saved every year, according to WHO.
Globally, less than 40% of infants under the age of six months are exclusively breastfed, according to WHO. Yet, according to dietician Dorle Verrinder breastfeeding rates are relatively low in Namibia. Despite recommendations to exclusively breastfeed their babies for at least six months, many mothers do not succeed in doing so, the dietician – who has a special interest in breastfeeding support – notes.
Although there are various reasons that women do not breastfeed for long periods, Verrinder says one of the main reasons is the lack of breastfeeding support to the lactating mother.
“There are many reasons, such as low milk supply, which is often caused by scheduled feeding, as opposed to feeding when the baby is hungry. If you feed the baby as often as you want to feed, the baby will stimulate enough milk [production],” Verrinder explained.
Adequate breastfeeding counselling and support are essential for mothers and families to initiate and maintain optimal breastfeeding practices, Verrinder said. She added that family members often put pressure on the mother to introduce the baby to formula milk, instead of finding ways to increase the mother’s milk production.
Although Teresa ended up breastfeeding her baby for over six months, as she was unemployed at the time, she raised the concern that many mothers struggle to exclusively breastfeed their infants for at least three months.
In addition, some young mothers are concerned that breastfeeding for long will result in sagging breasts.
“With adequate breastfeeding the (woman’s) body does return to the way it was pre-pregnancy,” she stated. She added that breast milk has health benefits. “There was a time when my baby had an eye infection and I started excreting breast milk in her eyes for about a week and it helped,” she said. She says breastfeeding is allows for bonding between mother and baby.
“I introduced the baby to formula milk when the baby was about to turn one year and noticed that her reaction to the milk was not the same,” said Teresa.
Asked whether she breastfeeds her baby in public places, the young woman replied: “I don’t breastfeed my baby in public, because I feel it’s a private thing that needs to be shared between me and my baby”.
However, there were instances when she had to breastfeed in public. “It was when we had to go for a doctor’s appointment,” she recalled.
Verrinder in turn opined that many mothers struggle with breastfeeding in public because “they may not feel comfortable”.
“Currently many mothers breastfeed in the toilet. If more people would talk about it and normalise it, then breastfeeding in public would not be a problem,” Verrinder said. Shops and companies should be encouraged to create breastfeeding spaces, she added.
On the other hand, 29-year-old Liezl Diergaardt said: “I am an advocate for breastfeeding in public. When my baby was about two weeks old I started going out with her. The first time I decided not to cover up. I just put her on the breast and made as if it was the most normal thing on earth, because well… it is.”
Diergaardt said that nobody asked her to cover up, or looked at her strangely “So, from there on I refused to cover myself or my baby with a blanket when feeding it and now we are professionals at it. I can even breastfeed while doing grocery shopping,” she laughs.
Fortunately, her husband shares the same stance on breastfeeding in public, she says. “He says if our baby is hungry, like any other person, she needs to eat. It doesn’t matter the time or the place. And if she feels anxious or scared or ill and needs some comforting I will breastfeed her no matter where I am or what I’m doing,” said the young medical doctor.
Diergaardt admits that she is fortunate, because her breastfeeding journey has been an enjoyable one compared to many other women.
“People have judged and made terrible comments when other women have breastfed their babies in public,” she says. In addition, some women become ill and are unable to breastfeed for as long as they would have wanted, she remarked.
The stress of having a new baby and having to learn this new skill has proven too difficult for some women, she observed. “I am a firm believer that we should all do what we feel is best for our babies and ourselves,” she added. She advises women to know the facts around breastfeeding and to see what they are comfortable with and what works for them.
“I know a few women, who would rather sit and feed their baby in their car, because they feel uncomfortable with breastfeeding in public. That remains their choice, but I do feel that we should be able to feed our children whenever they are hungry, despite our surrounding circumstances.”
* Not her real name