Tackling the misconceptions of breastfeeding
Maternal Health More people are accepting the benefits of breastfeeding, but Toyin Ojora Saraki, Founder of the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, explains there are still misunderstandings.
Over the last decade, the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding have been advocated across global and national policy and health platforms as being key to the baby and mother’s health. It has been scientifically proven that breast milk has antimicrobial factors, which give increased passive and long-lasting immunity to newborns.
Breastfeeding is also beneficial for the mother, where it has been shown to decrease the risk of postpartum haemorrhage and various cancers.
"Research shows that breastfeeding could save 800,000 lives annually."1
Breastfeeding is thought to impact majorly on the lives of children under six months. This is because most child deaths in the developing world – occurring as a result of drinking contaminated water or not receiving sufficient nutrients for the body to fight disease and infections during this period – can be prevented by exclusively breastfeeding.
Although many understand the benefits of breastfeeding and appreciate its demographic dividend, some mothers do not exclusively breastfeed because they are either not adequately informed about the benefits of breastmilk, are not supported in breastfeed effectively or are burdened by misconceptions around breastfeeding. In Nigeria, 98 per cent of new mothers initiate breastfeeding, however by six months only 25 per cent of them are still exclusively breastfeeding2.
photo credit: UNAIDS
Why do some women choose not to breastfeed?
The reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding are complex and vary. However, many misconceptions and misinformation have led mothers to prematurely discontinue or not even try breastfeeding. Misconceptions, ranging from the need to give water with breast milk, to a belief that long term breastfeeding will lead to sagging breasts, are the bane of poor breastfeeding practises in some societies.
In some cases, the use of infant formula is a sign of high status. Some mothers with special cases, like those infected with HIV/AIDS, have been misinformed they will infect their child if they breastfeed.
"In Nigeria, 98% of new mothers initiate breastfeeding, but by six months only 25% are still exclusively breastfeeding."2
Most of these misconceptions and misinformation can be tackled by providing mothers with adequate information and support through antenatal and postnatal care and education. Here mothers will get accurate and up-to-date information, not just about their bodies and their newborns, but also about the immediate and lifelong benefits of early initiation and exclusively breastfeeding.
At the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, we believe that antenatal education forms part of early health intervention, promotes positive perinatal outcomes and therefore should be viewed as part of lifelong journey, a means to helping parents acquire knowledge and understanding of the physical, emotional and psychological factors that affect their health and that of the unborn child.
To this end, in June 2015, the Wellbeing Foundation Africa MamaCare Antenatal and Postnatal Education Programme was launched. The programme seeks to improve maternal and newborn health outcomes in Nigeria. The premier programme, delivered in 27 health care facilities across three states in Nigeria, has reached over 6,000 women to date.
photo credit: Wellbeing Foundation Africa
"Most misconceptions and misinformation can be tackled by providing adequate education and support."
At the core of this programme are qualified midwives who, in a respectful manner, educate expectant and new mothers on various topics that pertain to their health and newborns, including the benefits of breastfeeding, while also supporting new mothers through processes in the postnatal period.
As the Head of Midwifery Programmes at the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, with over 30 years’ experience both in the UK and Nigeria, Mrs Felicity Ukoko, briefly addressed misconceptions and misinformation about breastfeeding.
Speaking about the natural changes that occur in a pregnant woman, she said: “It is indeed true that breast shape changes. This is not due to breastfeeding, but due to the changes that occur during pregnancy as they are filled with milk in preparation for lactation”. She then advised on the need for a supportive bra, exercise and good breastfeeding posture to prevent the breasts from sagging in future.”
Mothers with HIV/AIDS and breastfeeding
Regarding the special cases of mothers living with HIV/AIDS and working mothers, Felicity explained that there is now large a body of evidence on HIV and infant feeding, which shows that giving antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) to either the HIV-infected mother or HIV-exposed infant can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV through breastmilk. The World Health Organization recommends exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and giving antiretroviral drugs to infected mothers and their infants3.
"Antiretroviral drugs can significantly reduce the risk of transmitting HIV through breastmilk."
Continuing her explanation on issues facing mothers whilst breastfeeding, she stated that mothers returning to work after a short maternity leave, may need to make use of breast pumps to express breast milk, rather than giving infant formula.
“Mothers who wish to continue to provide their babies with breast milk after returning to work should have access to breast pumps and accessories. Once breastfeeding is established, expressed breast milk is much better for the baby than formula.”
A very common problem that new mothers face is the discomfort and pain of breastfeeding, which usually comes from cracked nipples. “Midwives and health professionals need to educate expectant mothers at antenatal care about how to properly position their newborn to breastfeed and to support lactating mothers who may have challenges.
photo credit: Wellbeing Foundation Africa
"Calling all midwives and health workers to make deliberate efforts to address breastfeeding misconceptions and misinformation!"
This year, to mark The World Breastfeeding Week, from August 1st to 7th nationally and globally, we are calling for midwives and other health workers to make deliberate efforts to address every breastfeeding misconception and all misinformation. Educating mothers about the ways to breastfeed and answering their questions during antenatal classes or clinic visits will alleviate the guilt and shame many new mothers feel when they cannot breastfeed successfully.
To increase the rates of breastfeeding and the health of the newborns, we need to devote attention to respectfully promoting, protecting and supporting all mothers.