I think most mothers in Malaysia know that breastfeeding is one of the best gifts a mother can give to her child. Breast milk is more than just nutrition. In some instances, breast milk is lifesaving. Numerous studies have shown both short term and long term impacts breastfeeding can have to a child’s health and intellectual growth. Breastfed children are healthier and with lesser incidences of childhood illnesses. They are also protected to a certain extent from diseases later in their adult life, like diabetes and obesity to name a few.
Most mothers who breastfeed do not need any extra motivation that researchers can offer regarding breast milk, other than knowing the simple truth that breast milk is the best for their child. The bonding a breastfeeding mother gets with her child is something no poet can adequately describe with words. Nor can a scientist quantify the pleasure felt, with mere statistics. Of course being protected from breast cancer and certain ovarian tumours are welcome advantages, where breast cancer is the number one killer of Malaysian women.
This sentiment that breast milk is the best nutrition for infants is not something innate in the psyche of the average Malaysian woman. Years of aggressive marketing by profit driven organizations had led some older generations amongst us, to think that breast milk was somehow inferior to the processed milk. Some might think that breast milk was for the less fortunate of the society, the have-nots if you may, as they could not afford the wonderful, vitamin and mineral – fortified processed milk.
The change in the society’s perception of breastfeeding, I believe, was the direct result of years of effort and money put in by our Ministry of Health in educating and training their personnel as well as tireless campaigns and programmes to reach out to the public to spread this simple yet profound message that breast is the best. Efforts were made to ensure medical staff were kept up to date with the latest research findings with regards to breastfeeding. Mandatory training was put in place to ensure all health workers were able to disseminate this knowledge and help mothers on how to breastfeed their child. Many government hospitals as well as private centres took steps to ensure that their institutions are accredited as ‘baby-friendly maternities’.
Why all the effort ? Because breastfeeding matters! Healthier children and mothers equate to a healthier ‘rakyat’ and a healthy ‘rakyat’ equates to a lower disease and economic burden of a nation. So it is very well worth the trouble.
So what now? Have we achieved our goals? An enlightened public with mums keen on breastfeeding? So let’s celebrate and pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. Yes?
The answer sadly, is still a resounding ‘No’. The truth is that although the understanding is there, the infrastructure and the policies that encourages and support breastfeeding mums leaves a lot to be desired.
The simple yet overlooked facts remains, almost 50% of workforce in our country are women of childbearing age. Living in today’s economy means that most households require both mum and dad to earn a living. The average maternity leave a mother gets is 2 – 3 months. Worst still, some only qualify for 2 weeks of ‘MC’. Yet, here we are encouraging mothers to exclusively breastfeed till the age of 6 months and to continue breastfeeding to at least 2 years. What an unfair situation our mothers are in! Mums nowadays are forced by circumstances to be both a co-breadwinner and nutrition source for her young child, among other things of course. Common sense dictates that for a mum to produce adequate milk, she needs to be well rested and at ease emotionally. Happy mothers make happy children (and a happy home if you ask their husbands!). But how does being forced to go to work when you are clearly not ready, benefit both mum and child? Do we give the classic retort of narrow minded fools such as ‘ if you don’t like it leave!’? Most mothers soldier on, as mothers often do. They do their best to pump and store their precious breast milk but what if the employers do not share this enthusiasm of giving the best nutrition to their child? I know of many mothers who sacrifice lunch breaks and any spare moments to pump in the car, the toilet, musolla and other avenues hidden from prying eyes. Mothers are nothing if not creative and resourceful! Kudos to the dads as well! I also know of dads who drive their babies to the wife’s workplace for a quick feed before rushing back to their own affairs.
Realising what an important role mothers have in ensuring the well-being of our society, shouldn’t we be more emphatic and supportive? Can’t there be more to be done to ease their plight?
I’m sure that if we can all come together sincerely as one nation, many solutions, both the tried and tested, as well as the novel ideas can be brought forward. Compassion and flexibility is the key in this situation. I know we can find solutions for thousands of working mothers who want to breastfeed their child, but face numerous challenges that can be alleviated with a few adjustments in policies. Perhaps, a crèche in every government institution? Daycares in workplace? Longer leaves and incentives for breastfeeding mothers, to name a few.
If we really want to have a healthier society, improve our economy and move forward as a developed nation, we need to start by making the lives of our Malaysian mothers better. As William Wallace eloquently stated more than a hundred years ago, ‘The Hand that rocks the cradle is the Hand that rocks the world’.
I am no William Wallace, but these are my thoughts,
To all the mothers out there,
You are the unsung Heroes,
Never faltering, never wavering ,
No matter what life throws.
Sacrificing is just like breathing,
Only the best is good enough,
So although lands may be ruled by Kings,
Our hearts are ruled by your love.
Happy World Breastfeeding Week!
Dr. Alya Hamzah is a paediatric medical officer currently working in Sabah and preparing for her final postgraduate exams in paediatrics. Find out more about her in The Team page.