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Today marks the first day of World Breastfeeding Awareness Week. In full transparency, the first time I heard from the 1st till the 7th of August is World Breastfeeding Awareness Week I was a bit taken aback because I had grown up watching Black women proudly breastfeeding their babies regardless of who was in their presence and the White women who followed suit being referred to as “free spirit” or “hippies”. Not sure what is so free-spirited or even hippie-like about nourishing your child in a similar way that infants have been fed for millennia. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) babies should be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of their lives, after which they are to be introduced to appropriate other foods in conjunction with being breastfed up to the age of 2 years and beyond. If you had to ask most moms they would love to follow WHO recommendations. However, the patriarchy has always viewed our ability to carry, birth, and nourish our babies as a liability. Women have been systematically excluded from climbing the corporate ladder and being remunerated fairly because of this. Not only are new mothers looked down upon for breastfeeding in public spaces but they’re made to feel less than human for needing to pump in the workplace. Our busy work schedules, and life’s other demands and challenges also place stressors on modern women and these things all play a factor in the decline of breastfeeding moms.  

Q. What is a Lactation Consultant and why would one seek out your services?

For us to gain a greater understanding of some of these challenges that modern mothers face this World Breastfeeding Week,  AoS spoke with Johannesburg-based Lactation Consultant Niyati Naik. Niyati is a wife, mom, and nurse. And despite having worked extensively in Paediatrics it wasn’t till after having her children, and experiencing her breastfeeding journey did she realise first-hand how little information there was around breastfeeding. Thus began her pursuit to specialise in the lactation field. “I wanted to learn more, share information and support new families.” says Niyati 

A lactation consultant is usually a qualified health professional (such as a nurse, midwife, physiotherapist, dietician, speech and language therapist) who has a special interest in helping breastfeeding families. In South Africa, we have South African Certified Lactation Consultants (SACLC) and International Board Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC), both are specialised qualifications which involve in-depth study, exams and clinical practice. This ensures that families have access to comprehensive and evidence-based information. 

Parents can benefit from a consultation with a lactation specialist at many points during their antenatal and postnatal stages. That is- to help prepare, initiate, sustain and even stop breastfeeding. 

Q. Why is it necessary for us to have a Breastfeeding Awareness Week?

As a society, we still have a long way to go before we can talk about breastfeeding openly. It remains a sensitive and private subject that can often cause a lot of confusion and debate. That is why it is so important to have dedicated time, where stakeholders all over the world can collaboratively open these discussions so that people and families can make informed decisions, rather than rely on hearsay or misinformation. 

Q. What are some common misconceptions about breastfeeding?

(Smiles) There are many! In my opinion, the first misconception is that breastfeeding is easy and should come naturally. Yes, it is the biological norm and has been used by our species (and many others!) for millennia. However, breastfeeding is as ‘easy’ as learning to talk and walk. It takes practice, skills, and support. 

Other common misconceptions may also be that the milk may ‘not be good enough, or that particular size and types of breasts are too large or too small to breastfeed. 

Q. When we read headlines about women opting out of breastfeeding most people attribute it to superficial mothers who just can’t be bothered but in reality, there are mitigating factors to the decline. Can you share what some of those factors are?

Absolutely!  Women should be entitled to make their own decisions about how they choose to feed their babies, and to be supported in their decisions, whatever they may be. However, women do not live in a vacuum. There are factors such as – family and societal pressures, unsupportive health professionals and policies, returning to work early in the post-partum period, unsupportive workplaces, not enough maternity leave, limited access to services and certain health conditions that make it difficult for women to start or continue to breastfeed, even if they had wanted. Rather than pointing fingers at women’s choices, we need to ask ourselves, if we as a society have been supportive of that parent. 

Q. Growing up I used to hear women speak positively about their breastfeeding experiences. As more and more of my peers have children I am learning that firstly as with everything in life, every woman’s experience is different. However, there are some similar stumbling blocks that many women experience. Can you break down some of the common challenges that most new mothers experience, what causes these challenges and what are some things that expectant or new mothers can do to decrease their chances of having to deal with any of the above-mentioned challenges?

Yes, each person is very unique and will therefore experience their lactation journey in their way. However, the common issues that women are faced with can be: dealing with emotional changes, pain, and engorgement relating to physical breast changes. Oftentimes, challenges may also emerge from not understanding what ‘normal’ infant behaviour may be. 

Often, we have a misconception that a ‘perfect’ breastfeeding journey is seamless and does not have difficulties. However, that is not the case. Challenges are very likely to be there, but it is how we deal with the challenges, and how much support we get in the process, that can make the world of a difference. 

Q. How important is one’s diet in preparation for breastfeeding? 

There are recommendations about diet restrictions and what is allowed in pregnancy, however, these restrictions do not necessarily need to be continued whilst breastfeeding. As an organ, the lactating breast uses more energy than the brain. This is why the average breastfeeding parent is required to consume 500 calories over and above their normal calorie intake to be well nourished. In cases where a lactating parent is unable to consume these additional calories, the body will still draw what is needed from itself to make appropriate breastmilk for the infant. 

Regarding the overall preparation for breastfeeding- the best way to prepare for breastfeeding is to be informed (luckily, ‘nipple brushing/scrubbing or rubbing’ or other painful preparations are not needed nor recommended). It is also beneficial to gather contact information of certified lactation consultants, to assist in answering your questions and transitioning to this new phase. 

Q. Are women just built differently from their grandmothers and mothers or did they just deal with their struggle in shame and silence? Are some of these factors caused or exacerbated by our evolution as a society and how so?

I think that the types of struggles that our mothers and grandmothers experienced, may have been different to our current circumstances,  but I believe that inherently, we are all built the same. So, the feelings of sadness, pain and isolation that may surface during the transition to parenthood can happen regardless of which generation one may be born into. Mostly, we all want to be happy, and comfortable and have children who not just survive, but who thrive.  

What has certainly changed though, is our knowledge and understanding of our incredible human body and how it works. We are also more likely to have better access to care and qualified support than the generations before us. The provision of safe platforms, to open discussions about the challenges and expectations, can turn the emotions of shame and isolation into experiences that can be uplifting and empowering. 

I sincerely feel that our mothers and grandmothers did the best that they could, with what they had, and what they knew. So, if we now know better, we can therefore choose better. 

Q. As more and more women open up about their breastfeeding experiences, what issues do you wish were more amplified? What’s getting lost in the soundbite social media breastfeeding awareness advocacy noise?

Whilst we all may enter the parenting journey with certain ideas, preferences and expectations, it is also ok for these to evolve. I would want parents to know that breastfeeding is beautiful and difficult, it will make you laugh, and make you cry. It is ok if it is not what you had expected and you may not always ‘like’ it. I would also want parents to remember that there is help when it comes to breastfeeding and infant feeding.

Whatever you choose, your physical and mental health is important. You deserve to be empowered with love and information so that you can give your baby what they need the most, a happy, loving and empowered parent.