Breastfeeding is usually linked to improved health outcomes in young children.
In spite of its many benefits to babies — such as optimal brain development, disease prevention and reduced risk of malnutrition — some mothers still shy away from the practice.
Statistics from the Kenya Demographic and Health Survey (KDHS) show that about 40 per cent of Kenyan children are not exclusively breastfed for the initial six months of their lives as recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Gladys Mugambi, the head of the nutrition and dietetics department at the Ministry of Health (MOH), notes that to enhance the practice, mothers need to ‘buy’ into the breastfeeding idea whilst appreciating its benefits.
It is for this reason that the health ministry has been engaging in massive campaigns to encourage women to embrace the practice.
The MOH’s target population are people like 28-year-old Catherine Mutinda, mother of a two-year-old baby boy who is yet to be convinced of the benefits of breastfeeding.
“I know people will judge me when they read this, but I just found breastfeeding to be painful, tedious and such a hustle. Plus I was afraid of having saggy breasts and letting motherhood ruin my beauty,” she said.
“I love my child and it’s not like I let him starve. I chose to give him formula milk before gradually introducing other foods. And I believe he’s healthy.”
Her sentiments are shared by many women who are reluctant to embrace breastfeeding as they feel that they have nothing to gain from it.
But contrary to their beliefs, Ms Mugambi states that mothers have a lot to gain from breastfeeding.
“The benefits are not just for the children, the mother also benefits in many ways.”
Compared to Infant formula milk and other food types, she notes that breast milk is an ideal immune booster which can enable the mother to save on hospital costs as it reduces the risk of childhood diseases like diarrhoea and respiratory ailments.
According to her, breastfeeding can also help prevent increasing cancer cases that are putting a heavy burden on the country’s health sector.
A huge proportion of women who breastfeed their kids usually experience hormonal changes which delay their menstrual periods.
This reduces their lifetime exposure to hormones like oestrogen known to promote breast cancer growth. By reducing ovulation, breastfeeding also guards against ovarian cancer.
Moreover, research shows that during pregnancy and breastfeeding, women also shed breast tissue.
During this process, the body destroys cells with potential DNA damage that can enhance cancer growth.
For body image and beauty fanatics like Catherine, Ms Mugambi states that hormones which help with milk production during breastfeeding also prompts the uterus to contract hence helping to reduce the pregnancy ‘pot’ which bothers most mothers.
As for the breasts, Mugambi states that they will sag anyway — with or without breastfeeding — as this is a natural process that occurs as the body ages.
But women can slow down this process by avoiding smoking, using a safe moisturiser, wearing a supportive bra that helps to lift and support the breasts as well as avoiding too much weight gain during pregnancy.
More research is also adding into the pool of breastfeeding benefits to mothers.
For instance, a new study presented recently at the American college of cardiology 67th Annual Scientific Session showed that women with normal blood pressure who breastfed their babies for at least six months following birth were more likely to enjoy better cardiovascular or heart health – many years later - compared to those who never breastfed.
This new study is the first to assess how breastfeeding affects markers of heart health in younger and middle aged women, about a decade after having children.
“The study adds to the evidence that lactation is important not just for the baby but for the mother,” said Dr Malamo Countouris, a cardiology fellow at the University of Pittsburgh and lead author of the study.
Study participants included 678 pregnant women who were recruited at more than 52 clinics across Michigan between 1998 and 2004 and were followed up for an average of 11 years.
Those with normal blood pressure that had breastfed for six months or more had significantly higher levels of HDL or “good” cholesterol, lower triglycerides and healthier carotid artery thickness compared to those who had never breastfed. These are markers of good heart health.
“The findings suggest women may be able to reduce their risk of heart disease by breastfeeding for at least six months per pregnancy,” said Dr Countouris. In accordance with the new Health Act, Ms Mugambi states that organisations should support lactating mothers by setting aside a safe and clean room where women can rest, relax and express milk.
“When you do this, the mother is able to work stress-free and this enhances her productivity which will also be good for the company.”
As the world celebrates the International Women’s Day tomorrow (March 8), health experts are calling on originations to offer such supportive environments for working mothers so as to minimise the professional gender gap that persist in most organisations where many men seem to rise faster in their careers as women lag behind, especially after giving birth.