Best for babies and nations

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar (The Philippine Star) - August 18, 2020 - 12:00am

In the midst of this pandemic, it can be easy for some to feel as if time has stopped. With COVID-19 as the focus of the world and rightly, necessarily so many other issues that were previously in the forefront of health have faded into the background.

But even with such a monumental crisis, life goes on. New lives are born. And those new lives, as well as the mothers who brought them into the world, are more vulnerable than ever.

August is National Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and I’d like to take some time to return to this important topic. I’ve been an advocate for breastfeeding since my days as a legislator, and many of the points I’ve raised before remain to be a concern now. It’s more important than ever to highlight the need to support breastfeeding mothers, because during this pandemic many established support systems can no longer function as they once had. Many of these depend on in-person guidance either in the form of home visits or seeing a consultant, and neither may be viable during a quarantine. While online support groups have sought to fill the gap, assistance is more difficult, and not everyone will have access to a reliable Internet connection.

Then there is also the fear that if we have COVID-19, we could pass that to our babies through breast milk. However, according to the most recent WHO recommendations, breastfeeding should continue even for COVID-positive mothers as any risk of transmission through breastfeeding is negligible and no cases have been documented as of Aug. 4. According to the United Nations even in the few instances where traces of the virus were found, these were not traces that could infect another person – they could not find any actual infective virus. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention says that they do not know whether mothers with COVID-19 can transmit the virus via breast milk, but the limited data available suggest this is not likely. A mother with COVID-19 should decide whether to breastfeed or not together with her family and healthcare providers. In any case, she should take all precautions to avoid spreading the virus to her infant, including handwashing and wearing a face mask.

At present, breastfeeding is NOT seen to be a way that COVID can be transmitted. There are a few other things that breastfeeding is not:

Breastfeeding is not a moral issue, both in the sense that a mother is not obligated to do it, and in the sense that a mother that chooses to do it should never be ashamed to do so. Breastfeeding is not easy, nor is it possible for everyone, and those who are unable to do so must not be subjected to prejudice. On the flip side, breastfeeding in public is not immoral, or indecent, or humiliating, or anything but a dedicated mother feeding her child. It is high time that adults realize that there is nothing lewd about a breast, especially not one being used to feed a child. There is nothing disgusting about breast milk. It is, simply, food for the infant. No woman should feel, or be made to feel, an ounce of shame wherever she chooses to feed her child.

Breastfeeding is also not a woman’s issue. By this I mean that it is not solely about women. Breastfeeding is a public health issue. It is an issue of national importance, whether you are a man or a woman, a parent or a child. As stated by the UNICEF and the WHO: “Breastfeeding is one of the most effective – and cost-effective – ways to save and improve the lives of children everywhere, yielding lifelong health benefits for infants and their mothers.” Breast milk, as one study puts it: “is the gold standard for protective nutrients fed to newborn infants.”

The very first time I breastfed my daughter Emma was also one of the most memorable times in my life. It was also the beginning of one of the most fulfilling and difficult challenges I’ve ever had to face. In order to breastfeed I had to stop some of the immunosuppressant medicine that I had been taking for my lupus. The doctor said I could only do this for a month. But it was important for me that I be able to breastfeed Emma as long as possible. And in the end I was able to do so for two years and a half – but it took a lot of support. I had a battery of experts that I consulted with: the NICU nurse who helped me breastfeed Emma for the first time, my maternal-fetal medicine specialist who advised me to solicit and store breast milk from friends who had just given birth, friends who donated their own breast milk which I had pasteurized for safety, Emma’s neonatologist who taught me how long I needed to wait before breastfeeding when I was taking medications. And while my lupus made my experience of breastfeeding more difficult than that of many others, I also had access to many resources that other women do not have.

With the pandemic wreaking havoc on those support structures, it is essential that the government find ways to assist new mothers and those who are struggling with breastfeeding. Many mothers will go to extraordinary lengths for their children, and they are possessed of incredible strength – but for a substantial number, it is that external assistance which will determine their success or failure with breastfeeding. And the success of mothers that choose to breastfeed is a success for the nation as a whole.

It is no coincidence that the United Nations has been active in the promotion of breastfeeding. Clear lines can be drawn from the benefits of breastfeeding to the achievement of sustainable development. Breast feeding can aid in the fights against hunger and poverty, it can promote good health and better prepare children for schooling – all of which in turn can better our overall chances for economic growth, as well as a reduction of inequality at both the individual and national scales.

The promotion of breastfeeding is sound public policy. Even during, and especially during – a public health crisis on the scale of COVID-19. Let us give our new mothers and their children the support they need because breastfeeding is not only best for babies; it’s best for nations as well.

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