(Published - 19 February 2019)
Breastfeeding saves lives: For most newborn babies, exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months is the key to health, followed by continued breastfeeding alongside nutritious complimentary meals for the first 1000 days of the newborn’s life. That’s why the University of the Western Cape is proud announce that staff, students and visitors will be able to make use of a brand new breastfeeding room at the UWC School of Public Health.
The brightly coloured room - which is adorned with African art - has a fridge to store milk, alongside comfy chairs and reading material on the benefits of breastfeeding.
“Breastfeeding is referred to as the gold standard of infant feeding; the benefits of breastfeeding to a baby, to the mother and to society are undisputed,” explains Catherine Pereira, a lecturer, registered dietitian and PhD in Public Health student at UWC’s Department of Dietetics and Nutrition as well as spokesperson for the Association of Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA). “But breastfeeding rates still remain too low globally, including in South Africa - and we all need to work together to create an environment that is supportive of women to be able to breastfeed and attend to other duties, such as work.”
While the early initiation of breastfeeding is common in South Africa, the country has relatively low breastfeeding duration rates and poor child feeding practices. The early introduction of other foods and fluids, called mixed feeding, is responsible for high rates of diarrhoea and contributes significantly to infant malnutrition and death.
“In South Africa today, most households are not economically able to support stay-at-home mothers. Women need to earn money in the workplace - and there is a lot of research to show that many women either stop breastfeeding or start mixed feeding when they return to work.”
There are a number of global and national commitments that have been made to protect, promote and support breastfeeding - such as the South African Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child - which forms part of the Basic Conditions of Employment Act (No. 75 of 1997 as amended).
However, finding a suitable and private space for moms to breastfeed or express their breastmilk at work is inevitably a challenge.
“Travelling to and from work to breastfeed a child still remains a challenge for most mothers at the University, as does finding a suitable and private place to express breast milk,” says Meko Magida, Executive Director: Human Resources at UWC. “Creating safe and hygienic areas for mothers to express milk or breastfeed their babies will be important for the continuous care and parental bonding that a baby needs.”
Breastfeeding is much safer than formula-feeding, and research indicates that breastfeeding comes with many benefits. Babies that are breastfed have higher disease-resistance and increased cognitive abilities. As a result, they tend to obtain better results at school, and have a greater chance of getting jobs in later life. So investing in breastfeeding and nutrition can provide economic benefits to country later on - and provide larger benefits to society.
“By establishing the first formal breastfeeding room for mothers on the UWC campus we are trying to promote this,” says SOPH Director, Prof Uta Lehman. “As public health professionals we know that supporting breastfeeding in the workplace makes good sense - it contributes to the health and well-being of our children and mothers, and our society as a whole.”
Raising A Child: It Really Does Take A Village
The University of the Western Cape is known as a caring and supportive institution that strives to create a safe and welcoming environment for all its staff - especially for parents of young children.
It’s one of the few higher education institutions that offers up to six months paid parental leave for biological mothers as well as adoptive parents. And UWC’s in-house Campus Kids is an ECD centre that provides an educational developmental learning programme in a safe environment for children - and was recently selected to represent the Western Cape at the National Development Agency (NDA) Awards.
“At UWC we uphold a balanced lifestyle where staff are able to actively support their families as well as contribute to the working environment in a positive way,” Magida notes. “No staff member should feel guilty of neglecting one for the other and all line managers must be sensitised to this need.”
The breastfeeding room is in line with UWC’s longstanding support of breastfeeding as a nutritional and societal good - as expressed each year during the UWC/Western Cape Government co-hosted Annual Breastfeeding Week.
“As a School of Public Health, members of our team and our long-standing academic colleagues and partners had for many years been highlighting the important role breastfeeding played in supporting child health,” Senior SOPH Researcher Nikki Schaay explains. “It was important that we supported and mirrored our academic advocacy efforts in the context of our own home.”
In South Africa we need to support our breastfeeding mothers by creating infrastructures and support systems in favour of breastfeeding, especially in the workplace but also in more informal workplace settings such as communities, where mothers work long hours as domestic workers or farm labourers, without formal maternity protection.
“Breastfeeding is not a one-woman job. Everyone has a role to play in supporting women to breastfeed, whether that be at a health facility level, in homes and the community or in the workplace,” says Pereira.
“This launch is just the start.”