Recently, I heard this story from the local news about an infant with severe malnutrition showing improvements in health after one year of treatment. According to the mother, she does not earn enough money from doing laundry so she just gives binusang kape (toasted coffee) or sinunog na bigas (toasted grains) to her baby. Seeing the cute little girl, lying down in her makeshift crib, trying to drink a huge volume of coffee from a large feeding bottle really broke my heart.
But more than my heart breaking into pieces, an endless series of whys keep popping into my mind – “Why did she not think of breastfeeding her baby? She looked like a young, healthy mother who can produce milk. Why does she need to ask for help from media for treatment? Why?”
Who am I to judge? I do not know fully well the backstory of the mother and the baby. However, I have always been hearing the same story: mother does not earn enough, mother cannot buy powdered milk, mother gives baby coffee or diluted evaporated milk, baby gets sick, baby gets malnourished – or worse – baby dies.
All these still happen even when in fact, the simple act of breastfeeding can save the baby’s life. Not to mention that breast milk is free and does not need any equipment to be prepared.
Let’s talk about milk
Isn’t it that the Department of Health had required all health facilities to adopt Unang Yakap or the Essential Newborn Care (ENC) protocol in 2009? In May 2012, the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) ordered local government executives to adopt the 2011-2016 Philippine Plan of Action for Nutrition which encourages local governments to implement the Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) practices, the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotions Act of 2009, and the Milk Code.
Did no one support or inform this poor mother on breastfeeding her child?
But I know from experience that informing or educating mothers on benefits of breastfeeding is not enough. For 7 years, I worked for health projects in a non-government organization focusing on maternal and child health and nutrition (MCHN). I was truly blessed to learn a lot.
Then I became pregnant. I was confident that I would be able to apply all the knowledge I know about breastfeeding and MCHN. Yet, when my son was born, breastfeeding was not that easy despite being armed with loads of knowledge about it.
Thankfully, I was able to exclusively breastfeed my son for 6 months and I’m still directly breastfeeding him now that he is more than 1-year-old. By God’s grace, he neither got sick nor hospitalized except for getting the usual cough and colds that would last only for a few days.
So who are the people I have to thank for big time? My supportive husband who I bombarded with MCHN concepts long before I became pregnant, my Obstetrician-Gynecologist who is both an advocate of breastfeeding and natural methods, the hospital where I gave birth who took to heart the implementation of ENC, the hospital’s lactation consultants providing free advice and support, my supervisors who let me work from home, and my mother who turned into a breastfeeding advocate despite not being able to breastfeed me when I was young.
I guess I have to pat myself in the back as well for committing to it with grit and sheer determination despite facing challenges during my early breastfeeding journey days such as sore nipples, sometimes feeling isolated at home and seemingly being stuck forever with a nursing baby.
Therefore, if a knowledgeable person like me had difficulty, what more for those mothers who knew little or nothing about breastfeeding?
If they do get knowledge about breastfeeding, they would not automatically act on it. I have seen this happen so many times before being a practitioner of behavior change communication for public health. Indeed, knowledge is power, but it is useless without any action.
More than educating mothers about breastfeeding, creating a supportive environment for them is crucial to be successful in their breastfeeding journey – a kind of environment where policies are strictly enforced to protect breastfeeding mothers and to educate family members and health workers.
As a country, we have made improvements over the years in reducing child deaths. Under-five mortality decreased from 80 deaths per 1,000 births in 1990 to 30 in 2011. I salute the Philippine government for developing various policies to help improve newborn care and protect breastfeeding, helping reach the Millennium Development Goal of decreasing child mortality by two-thirds. However, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done.
The Philippines still belongs to one of the 42 countries contributing to 90% of global death of children who are under 5. Although 92% of children are breastfed in the Philippines, only 27% were exclusive breastfed in the first 6 months.
If breastfeeding and IYCF policies would be strictly enforced, the public and media correctly educated about breastfeeding, and a supportive environment will be created and sustained for breastfeeding mothers, we would probably not hear any more heartbreaking stories of poor mothers feeding their babies coffee and babies dying of malnutrition.
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We would probably not hear the usual lines of mothers interviewed saying, “Mahirap lang po kami kaya wala kaming pambili ng gatas.” (We are poor and we do not have money to buy milk). All mothers, whether poor or rich, deserve all the support they need to raise healthy children. Why not? When they are bearing the future workforce to move this country’s economy.
It is time to put an end to the usual stories of mothers choosing toasted coffee over breast milk for their babies. – Rappler.com
Grace “Gayo” Gayoso-Pasion is currently a breastfeeding stay-at-home mom. When not playing with her baby, she writes publications, hosts events, and facilitates workshops on the side. She also worked in an international Christian NGO as a Regional Knowledge Management and Communication Specialist for health, nutrition, and HIV&AIDS programs in the Asia Pacific Region.
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