Two in every five infants in Kenya are not exclusively fed on breast milk, the global health watchdog says, raising concerns over their growth and survival.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) has long linked unbalanced diet and lack of food other than the mother’s milk to high rates of stunting, overweight and death in children under five.
Now, WHO is pushing breast milk as ‘’the original super food for babies’’ and urging mothers to start within one hour after birth up to six months.
A key reason that women do not breastfeed or stop breastfeeding early is the need to return to work.
Kenya has made progress in exclusive breastfeeding with the World Bank data showing that 61 per cent of mothers breastfeed their children up to six months without introducing any other foods. This is a significant increase from 23 per cent in 1989.
However, most of the 39 per cent of Kenyan women who are not breastfeeding return to work early, lack conducive environments to express and store milk in the workplace or businesses or opt for formula milk thought to be more superior.
Under the law, employers ought to establish a clean room that has a washbasin, fridge for storing milk and an electric outlet and lighting. However, only 35 companies in the private sector have lactation rooms while no public office has, according to the Kenya Private Sector Alliance.
Gladys Mugambi, the Head of Nutrition and Dietetics at the Ministry of Health sees the huge disparities in socioeconomic classes as the biggest drawback in implementing the policy.
"The Ministry is still developing guidelines and we are in talks with the Nairobi County and other ministry of health sections to see how this can be done," she says.
But setting up a lactation station at the place of work is by no means an idle expense, argues Ms Gloria Ndekei, trustee at Kepsa Foundation. She says companies stand to gain more by having such stations at their workplace.
"All they need is a two-by-two-meter cupboard with sink and a mini fridge; it does not have to be a costly affair. Because women are more at ease when they have children catered to then they perform better in their jobs," she notes.
Despite the challenges, Kenya is still ahead of other African nations and is among countries that have been able to achieve the World Health Assembly target of increasing exclusive breastfeeding in the first six months to 50 per cent by 2025.
Breastfeeding has lifelong health benefits to both the babies and the mother.
Ms Nerea Ojanga, a midwife at Kenyatta National Hospital says that breast milk contains an optimal balance of nutrients for babies, as well as powerful antibodies to help them fight off infections.
She adds that children who are breastfed have a decreased risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) and childhood illnesses like cancer, diabetes and asthma.
"Children who are breastfed have a higher IQ while the bonding and affection given by their mother also make them more confident than those who have not been breastfed," she said, adding that mothers benefit as prolonged breastfeeding lowers their risk of breast and ovarian cancer, osteoporosis and anaemia.