05 August 2020 | Story Dr Chantell Witten | Photo Supplied
Dr Chantell Witten

Globally, World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated from 1 to 7 August annually to raise awareness and galvanise action to promote, protect, and support breastfeeding. This year’s theme, #WBW2020, will focus on the impact of infant feeding on the environment/climate change to protect the health of babies, the planet, and its people. Sadly, despite all the health and social benefits of breastfeeding, South Africa has one of the lowest breastfeeding rates globally.  Why is this?

Women in general face a very hostile social environment in South Africa, even more so during the COVID-19 pandemic.  Almost one in two households in South Africa is female-headed, and approximately nine million children live in fatherless homes.  This puts an added burden on women, and most often mothers, to economically provide for essentials such as food, transport, and health care. Non-breastfeeding implies a reliance on other infant feeding, most often commercial and expensive. This inadvertently leads to inappropriate infant feeding, with the introduction of other foods before the age of six months.  The World Health Organisation and the National Department of Health recommends and promotes exclusive breastfeeding for all infants during the first six months of life.  In the era of lifelong antiretroviral treatment for HIV, all women can now safely breastfeed their infants. Infants younger than six months do not need anything else but breastmilk.

Breastmilk is a unique biological material that adapts to the needs of the growing infant.  Breastmilk provides nutrition, immunity, and unique nutrients to promote neurocognitive development.  However, to assist mothers in breastfeeding, we need a supportive environment at home, in our communities, and in our workplaces.  Breastfeeding mothers face an inordinate amount of pressure and negative inputs from hostile family who do not support the mother’s role to mother her child as she sees fit, or from hostile public spaces that do not cater for the breastfeeding mother, such as shopping malls and restaurants.  This saw Spur, the well-known family restaurant group, putting forward a public breastfeeding policy for their retail chain.  In order to support the return of breastfeeding mothers to the workplace, we need all workplace environments to endorse and comply with the code of good practice on pregnancy and afterbirth.  Perhaps in this time of COVID-19, more women will be working from home and will have the pleasure and privilege afforded to them to breastfeed their babies for longer.  The longer children are breastfed, the longer the health benefits and protection, even into the adult years.  Breastfeeding is associated with lower rates of obesity, lower rates of non-communicable diseases, and higher rates of cognitive development.

COVID-19 has forced us to have compassion and stand in solidarity with each other; now, more than ever, we need to stand together with breastfeeding mothers and women in general.  After all, breastfeeding is best for babies, best for our planet, and best for everyone.


Opinion article by Dr Chantell Witten, Division of Health Professions Education, University of the Free State


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