To breastfeed or not to breastfeed?

Breastfeeding has for many years been identified as the best feeding option for infants. The benefits of breastfeeding are many and go beyond basic nutrition, something communicated rather well to pregnant women using the public health system. Posters attesting this have been gracing our public health facilities in a variety of languages for over a decade.

The department of health has always strongly advocated for exclusive breastfeeding (meaning no solid food, formula or water) in the first 6 months of a child’s life. This was intensified in 2012 when it stopped issuing free formula in many of the country’s healthcare facilities. This decision is said to have been made owing to the “unacceptably high” infant and child mortality rates, coupled with concern about the environment in which formula milk is prepared among other reasons. It is well-known that baby feeding equipment requires having clean, boiled water and sterilised equipment to prepare, which for any women poses its own challenges. Also, the cost of formula milk is known to push some women into feeding their children solids before they are six months old, something which can have a detrimental effect on a child’s health.

Apart from the greater emphasis on exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months, there is a lot of emphasis placed on how families, communities and society at large can support breastfeeding mothers. This is coming not only from the department, but also members of society who are also advocating for breastfeeding to be accepted as a natural phenomenon.

There is no doubt that this is necessary but just as important is to not promote breastfeeding in a manner that vilifies those who do not breastfeed.

My daughter was only breastfed for three months as I was due for surgery the April following her birth. Apart from that, the pre-op treatment I was on was taking its toll on her. It once again happened with my son, who I breastfed for only two months, this time because I had to go back to work. Both times I felt extremely guilty about not breastfeeding them for longer, not only because they were losing out on the benefits of breastmilk, but also because feeding one’s child is such a precious moment.

On top of my own guilt, I had to deal with people who would let me know how “cruel” I was to stop breastfeeding my infants. People would make comments about how young women “just want to run to the streets” after having a baby, seemingly oblivious of the fact that children have needs which can only be met if I earn a living.

Apart from the face-to-face encounters, I also frequently found myself bombarded with reading material about how “breast is best” on Facebook. These posts weren’t specifically directed at me, but were put in groups I am a part of and discussions would take place about how mothers should breastfeed. Pointing out how it’s not always practical to do so would be met with solutions that don’t really reflect the reality of many working-class black women.

Some women on these platforms would express “shock” or be “perplexed” about why women would return to work so soon after giving birth.

Unfortunately, a number of us do not enjoy benefits such as maternity leave, meaning if we aren’t at work we’re not getting paid, which isn’t ideal when you have a child. My own experience was even easier than many other women I know, who returned to work less than a month after giving birth, many doing hard, manual labour on farms.

Many women do not get the nutrition required to produce adequately satisfying breastmilk. A large percentage of our population lives below the poverty line and rely on the cheapest of foods, which aren’t necessarily the most nutritious. Another solution often tossed around is expressing breastmilk, which ignores the woman who lives in a shack or mud-house, with no electricity never mind a fridge. For someone like me on the other hand, expressing milk wasn’t practical as my job requires that I travel often.

I really believe that sensitivity is required when discussing breastfeeding. The reality is that for some of us there are many other factors that are taken into consideration when choosing to breastfeed or not and this does not make us uncaring or negligent mothers.

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