Updated 06 August 2013

What makes a mom breastfeed?

The health benefits of breastfeeding are well-known and yet there are many other factors that influence a mother's decision on whether to breastfeed or not.

World Breastfeeding Week is an annual initiative that spreads the word about the nutritional and health benefits that are associated with breastfeeding. This year, the Department of Health is focusing on the many influences in a mother’s environment that either help or hinder how successfully she manages to breastfeed her baby.

The following factors may either encourage or discourage a new mom to breastfeed or to abandon her efforts:

  • The family – they are crucial, with older female members acting as encouraging role models (not sources of scary old wives' tales), and helping with household chores, cooking, shopping and other domestic tasks, as well as minding and caring for other children in the family, so that mothers can have time to spend with their infants to breastfeed in peace.
  • The community – the attitudes of a mother’s community towards breastfeeding can play a crucial role in determining if new mothers breastfeed and for how long, or turn to breast milk substitutes and formula feeds at the slightest little setback. In this context, the high number of very young first-time mothers in our country will face peer pressure regarding breastfeeding from their pals, many of whom are practically still children themselves. On the one hand, these young emerging women may regard breastfeeding as "gross and messy" or be fanatical supporters of breastfeeding for a variety of reasons associated with ecology, the green faction, and trying to "get back at the bottle-feeders" (i.e. their parents).

  • The media – this is probably one of the most powerful tools which health professionals and the Department of Health should use to the maximum to promote breastfeeding and to demystify the process and make it 100% acceptable in society again. But advertising costs exorbitant amounts of money and in this field breastfeeding supporters are up against powerful mega-companies who are trying to persuade all the women in the entire world that they do not need to breastfeed when they can use product X or Y or Z instead.

  • Health care services – this includes both the public and the private sectors. In the public sector we have many provincial and teaching Hospitals, clinics and even travelling nurses who act as health visitors to incapacitated members of the community or small villages that are far away from the nearest municipal clinic. Every member of the health professions who comes into contact with a new mother and her infant, needs to be well informed about breastfeeding (its benefits, techniques, problems and solutions). A unified approach from all the experts to encourage not only the new moms, but also their families, communities and employers to support mothers to breastfeed their babies for the recommended six months at least and longer if possible, would help a great deal to make breastfeeding a universal and accepted practise in our country once more.

The role of employers

A special communication issued by the Department of Health on "Encouraging and Supporting Mothers to Breastfeed Their Babies" (DoH, 2013), outlines what employers can do to provide support to those of their employees who are breastfeeding their infants.

The Department of Health has identified three key areas that employers should concentrate on to empower women to breastfeed:

  • Maternity leave – at least four months or ideally six months of paid maternity leave. As an alternative, employers could explore the use of a longer maternity leave period with partial pay.
  • Flexible working hours including part-time schedules, longer lunch-breaks and job sharing.
  • Breastfeeding breaks adding up to at least one hour during the working day should be made available to working mothers of young babies that require breastfeeding.

  • Make places available for infants and children to be cared for close to the workplace, such as creches. The Department of Health suggests that mobile childcare units could solve the problem in rural working settings and for seasonal female workers (e.g. on farms, fruit picking, etc).
  • Provide a comfortable, private space for breastfeeding babies and expressing/storing breastmilk at work
  • It is essential that women who are breastfeeding are not exposed to hazardous chemicals, or potentially toxic environments. The workplace should be kept as clean and safe as possible for all employees, but breastfeeding mothers in particular.

  • Make sure that your female worker force and the unions are informed about benefits associated with maternity leave and arrangements/facilities to promote breastfeeding.
  • Reassure women that their jobs are safe during pregnancy, maternity leave and breastfeeding.
  • Educate management staff and all co-workers about breastfeeding and change any negative attitudes they may harbour against breastfeeding mothers.
  • The formation of a network of supportive women should be encouraged by management so that breastfeeding moms have the emotional and physical backup of their female coworkers.
Educate and inform

It is always important that everyone involved with women who breastfeed are well informed about the great and far-reaching benefits that breastfeeding can provide for the children, the parents, the family, the community, the employers, the society, and the country. I am sure that most people who have not actually breastfed an infant, know very little about the benefits associated with helping mothers to breastfeed for six or more months.
If the Department of Health could translate the advantages of breastfeeding into savings achieved in monetary terms, then perhaps families, communities, institutions (which include all government, provincial and municipal departments!) and private sector employers would be more inclined to listen and do something about this vital activity. I am not an economist, but it’s time that someone with the necessary economical expertise crunches the numbers and presents every level of society with a total of "what you could save if you supported breastfeeding!"

(References: (ADSA (2013). Breastfeeding Week 1-7 August 2013. Weekly Notices. Personal communication, 31 July 2013; DoH [Department of Health] (2013). Encouraging & Supporting Mothers to Breastfeed Their Babies. Breastfeeding Week 1-7 August 2013.

Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in Nutrition and Biochemistry. She believes that "we are what we eat" and offers free nutrition and weight loss advice via her DietDoc service on Read more of her articles.


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