Back in the days, breastfeeding a baby involved minimal hustle since most women were stay-at-home mothers. This made breastfeeding reasonably easy. But as of today, as more women increase the work force, more new mothers must now deal with breastfeeding issues and career demands at the same time.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) pronounces breastfeeding as a very important nutritional requirement for the health of babies and stipulates that breast milk should be the only food given to babies during the first six months of life. They advise that breastfeeding should continue in children up to two years of age. But that can be difficult for working mothers around the world.
Sandra (not her real name), a mother of one and a worker with a humanitarian organisation in West Nile sub-region, which involves travelling a lot and sleeping in tents at refugee camps, has nothing close to a good experience when it comes to breastfeeding and attending to her job as a field coordinator.
After giving birth to her daughter, Giselle, who was medically induced, Sandra recalls only breastfeeding her for seven days because she needed to travel out of the country on short notice for work and take up her study scholarship concurrently and would only return after 15 months.
This, she says, struck her so hard that she had to make a tough decision between staying back and looking after Giselle, who was preterm (one month early) or going to class over thousands of kilometers away to London.
Full of uncertainty and running mixed feelings, pondering over the health and survival of her only child, Sandra said “my only option was my mother’. ‘I needed to work to keep my job and also take up my study scholarship because I knew this would be a turning point for my family.”
“The hardest part being a first-time mother without having your baby near is the recurrent dripping breast milk, which stains blouses and sometimes leads to sore breasts,” she said.
“I resorted to pumping the milk, which would go to waste as there was no baby to consume and waking up in the middle of my sleep to massage my breasts and ease them of pressure,” she added.
For Sandra, she immediately got herself nursing pads that she would place in her bra to avoid the stains on the blouse, but this was not the only thing to worry about. She had enrolled her preterm daughter to SMA formula, a milk substitute. ‘Since my mother was taking care of my child, I could not stop worrying about her health, whether she will survive the odds of catching infections associated with lack of breastfeeding like diarrhoea and pneumonia,” she said.
The Lancet, a medical journal, in a series of articles published has highlighted women’s work as a major obstacle to optimal best breastfeeding. For working women, exclusive breastfeeding may not only be unrealistic, it is also draining and sometimes overwhelming. It leads them to give up nursing early, which puts their children at risk of dying from preventable diseases such as pneumonia, malaria, diarrhoea, and post-natal complications. World over, mothers are encouraged to breastfeed their child within the first hour of birth.
The worries of Sandra, caught up with her when, Giselle was always in and out of hospital with frequent bouts of diarrhoeal and respiratory infections. “I remember crying helplessly in my room when my mother told me that the doctor had diagnosed my daughter with pneumonia, at six months of age. I was shuttered and for the first time I thought I was a selfish mother who never re-considered her decisions to leave a preterm child,” she said. She, however, believes a fair share of women are determined, but the environment is not always supportive of exclusive breastfeeding.
Many mothers, especially the working class are substituting breastfeeding with bottle feeding, yet exclusive breastfeeding will yield better results than the most expensive baby formulae can deliver.
Meanwhile, for Esther (not real name) 40-year-old civil servant (a teacher), a mother of three, says she breastfed her now seven-month-old baby boy exclusively for the first three months during her maternity leave then returned to work. But she expresses breast milk every morning and keeps in the refrigerator for her son. During lunch-break, she rushes home to breastfeed him and does it even at night.
‘On certain days I do not produce enough milk to cater for him for the entire day so I also give him diluted cow’s milk besides porridge and other soft foods,’ she said. ‘It is difficult to juggle classroom and a baby, but I sacrifice for the health and wellbeing of my son,’ she added.
As for Aciro a 19-year-old mother working at a Gas station as pump attendant, breast milk is the only food she gives her four-month-old son. “I come to work with Peter everyday as I have no one to help me look after him at home.
My colleagues and superviser are supportive, they give me breaks to breastfeed him whenever he is hungry, but with the nature of my job, I want to introduce him to porridge so that I find a way of leaving him at home other than have him here with me in this unfavorable environment,” she said.
Ms Obwana is the programme officer,
Civil Society Alliance for Nutrition Uganda - CISANU