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The business side of breastfeeding

Most Kenyan mothers are quick to embrace highly sought-after milk
Most Kenyan mothers are quick to embrace highly sought-after milk "boosters" such as imported biscuits and teas, chia seeds and bras. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

Pressure to breastfeed exclusively for six months has spawned new entrepreneurs targeting Kenyan mothers struggling to produce milk.

Welcome to the business of infants where entrepreneurs sell anything from imported biscuits and teas bought from US online store Amazon that promise to stimulate milk production, chia seeds, unnecessary sports bras, cot bumpers to fancy pillows that put children at risk of sudden death.

Mary Mathenge, a lactation manager at Aga Khan University Hospital who has worked with mothers for 25 years, says parents spend lots of cash on fancy, needless things which pose risks to children.

‘‘Why are buying a cot bumper or baby pillow? Bumpers prevent air circulation in the crib. For pillows, infants are born with big heads and small necks, so if you put a pillow even those fancy soft ones, you compromise their breathing and may lead to instant death,’’ she says.

For mattresses, avoid the fancy soft memory foam ones which pose risk of suffocation. Buy traditional mattresses which are hard and that leave no depression.

‘‘You also don’t need a baby monitor. An infant should sleep in the same room with the parents but not share a bed. Why do you want to separate them too early? Infants below six months have no control of their heads and they need to be watched keenly and not monitored from afar,’’ says Ms Mathenge who is also a Lamaze teacher.

The lactation expert is prescribing exclusive breastfeeding to every new mother in Kenya, however, not everyone produces enough milk.

To avoid maternal stress and depression, she says, one can supplement with baby formula but not with cow, goat or camel milk.

Raw camel and goat milk have become ‘a thing’ among new mothers, thanks to social media pressure where others credit it for its richness in nutrients and for treating eczema — a skin condition.

‘‘The casein protein in goat or camel milk is not easily digested in infants below one year. It forms a curd and causes protein allergies,’’ says Ms Mathenge.

But before giving up on breastfeeding, she says, mothers need to understand how milk is formed and how the baby should suckle.

A baby may be wrongly suckling the nipple instead of the areola where milk is temporary stored. Stress, tears and adrenaline rush are enemies of breast milk because they affect release.

‘‘After two to three days after child birth, a woman should wear a bra and even sleep with it. Sagging breasts stretch the areola, making it hard for a baby to suckle. Wearing a bra also prevents clogged milk ducts in the armpits,’’ she says, adding that if the breast is engorged, freeze a cabbage and wear the leaf like a bra to reduce swelling.

Most doctors say the breast milk is the best, but it lacks enough Vitamin D and iron.

Most children who are breastfed exclusively for six months by overdressed mothers who mostly stay indoors are at a higher risk of getting rickets which can be fatal, especially if it spreads to the rib cage.

‘‘Vitamin D should be given to infants who take breast milk only from week six up to six months. We give iron supplements to premature babies only because the term-babies extract a lot of iron from their mothers during the last months,’’ says Ms Mathenge.

But how did Kenyan parents come to this craze of milk boosters and overeating myths yet lactation experts say, ‘‘a mother should drink for four and eat for one, there is no dry breast as every woman starts making colostrum from 28 weeks after conception?’’

Most parents point at the Internet where they seek answers for medical problems to dying marriages, most of which are inaccurate.

Take a question on a Facebook breastfeeding group, for instance, ‘‘my baby keeps crying and the midwife advised that I supplement with formula milk. Anything I can do so that the milk comes sooner?’’

The answer: ‘‘That’s a wicked midwife. Real ones show you how a baby latches on properly and to suckle until the milk flows.’’

Some of the anti-formula milk extremists may be contributing to starvation in infants. But who does not want to be the working mother who juggled a strenuous job and breastfeeding? I was so obsessed with breastfeeding my daughter that I could not let anyone to give her formula milk even when I was two-hours away, stuck in a traffic jam. I felt guilty eventually.

Ms Mathenge says to know that you are starving your baby, who should feed on demand and after every three hours, look at the diaper or napkin.

‘‘After five days of life, a baby should urinate six to eight times in 24 hours. If the frequency is below four times, see a doctor,’’ she says.

When I asked the lactation expert if fenugreek, hibiscus, moringa or chia seeds work and change the taste of milk — she tells me: ‘‘The seeds actually increase milk production, but in some women, it is a placebo-effect. Because a mother is expecting the seeds to work, her relaxed brain prompts the prolactin hormone which makes milk.’’

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