Updated 31 August 2016

Breastfeeding in South Africa is dangerously low

The rate of exclusive breastfeeding up to six months of age for babies in SA is only 8% – one of the lowest in the world. Neighbouring Swaziland is 44% and Tanzania is 50%.

“Eight percent is concerning,” said Debbie Farnaby, CEO of Save the Children South Africa, on the occasion of World Breastfeeding Week from 1-7 August. “The WHO has recommended that exclusive breastfeeding for babies up to six months is optimal, and this view has also been endorsed by the government of South Africa.”

Save the Children is one of several organisations that has been working to spread awareness about the advantages of exclusive breastfeeding, for both mother and child. One of the main reasons why fewer women breastfeed their babies is that previously, mothers with HIV were under the misconception that breastfeeding  may result in mother-to-child HIV transmission. (About one in ten people in this country are infected with HIV).

The government of South Africa only clarified its policy on breastfeeding in August last year, committing to discontinue the provision of free formula milk at hospitals and clinics and also to promote the exclusive breastfeeding strategy for all children from birth to six months, including for those living with HIV. (Formula milk is recommended only under certain conditions, such as when mothers are unable to breastfeed or the child is receiving insufficient nutrition through breastfeeding.)

How safe is breastfeeding ?

“With the appropriate regime of anti-retrovirals (ARVs) breastfeeding is safe and recommended because it provides immunity from infections,” says Debbie. “Using formula milk can be risky in areas where mothers do not have access to clean water and sanitation, thereby increasing the chances that babies will get diarrhoea – one of the biggest killers of babies, worldwide.”

South Africa has very high infant and child mortality rates, which is directly attributable to AIDS, birth complications, childhood illnesses, diarrhoea, pneumonia and malnutrition. The under-five mortality rate is 57 per thousand live births and the infant mortality rate is 41 per thousand live births. In fact, South Africa is one of only 12 countries worldwide where child mortality rates have not declined since 1990, the baseline for the MDGs.

Save the Children has trained over 100 health workers and 200 home-based carers on the topic of breastfeeding and other skills in Limpopo, thereby increasing their capacity to provide quality infant healthcare and reducing mother-to-child-transmission (PMTCT). “We want to raise awareness as much as we possibly can about this issue,” said Debbie, “because South Africa has a lot of catching up to do on this front, in order to increase the number of our children who survive to adulthood.

(Press release, October 2012)

Read more: 

Breastfeeding questions answered

Breastfeeding myths

Management of HIV




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