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Breast-feeding and human rights

By Helen Ovbiagele, Woman Editor
Hey!  This is a lovely baby!
A future Mr. Nigeria!”  I
exclaimed to Maisie, a friend’s daughter who had just had her first baby at this highbrow hospital.  “When did he arrive and how much did he weigh?”

“Yesterday morning at 8.05, and he weighed 3.5 kg.  Thanks for coming ma.  How’s the family?”
“We’re fine.  Sorry, you look miserable.  What’s the matter?”

“Nothing ma. It’s just that, er, er, ………………”  Then she began to cry. This woke up the baby in the crib at her side and he began to cry too.  She picked him up and began to rock him in her arms.

“Oh dear, I seem to have triggered off something.  I hope you’re not in pain.”
She shook her head, as she put the baby to her chest and attempted to breast-feed him. No luck.

Both mother and baby struggled for a while, but there was no flow.  Maisie dissolved into tears of frustration.

“This is my problem, auntie.  I feel a failure.  I can’t even breast-feed the baby. The nurses are so cruel about it, as they accuse me of not trying enough, and that it’s because I don’t want my breasts out of shape.  That’s not true!   The milk is not flowing and the baby can’t hang on to the nipple for long.

Mum bought NAN 1 for us to try meanwhile so that the baby doesn’t starve, but the matron is blocking that; saying I must try harder so that the flow can be established.”

“Don’t cry, Maisie,”I said, trying to soothe her.  “Your situation is very very normal.  Not all new mothers can breast-feed as soon as they give birth.  For many, it takes a few days for the milk to flow, and for the baby to suck well.”

“And some mothers can’t breast-feed their baby at all, ma,” said  Maisie’s ward mate, who had been following our conversation.  “I’ve told her that.  My milk began to flow early because this is my second child.  With my first baby it took three days before we could connect.  I was so sore.

The nurses told me to buy baby formula and that was what I used until I got home and the flow was established.  My ward mate on that occasion, for some reasons, couldn’t breast-feed her baby.  The nurses accepted that and her baby was put on formula straight away.  The nurses here are not kind.  They act as if they have a grudge against one.”

As if to confirm what the lady had said, a nurse came in to scold Maisie for rocking her baby and not putting him to her breast.

“Nurse, I’ve tried several times, but there’s no milk flowing, my nipple has become very sore, and my baby is very hungry,” protested Maisie.  “Can’t he have the formula?”

Her question went unanswered.  “How can the milk flow when the baby is not drawing it out?” asked the nurse.  “The matron said I should come examine your breasts to find out if the milk is actually not flowing.”

“What!” exclaimed Maisie.  “You mean you have to examine my breasts before you believe me?  You’re infringing on my human rights!  What I do about breast-feeding is my business.”

“Every mother should breast feed her baby.  I don’t know why your case is different.  Mother’s milk is best for baby.”

“Everyone knows that, nurse, and I personally saw Maisie, in tears, struggling to breast-feed her baby,” I told the nurse.  “She’s a new mother.  I’m not trying to teach you your job, and this is a reputable hospital, but she needs sympathy and encouragement more than scolding.”

The lady murmured and then left.

That incident took place several years ago and Maisie has since had two other babies  whom she breast-fed, just like that first one, for nine months each, before she introduced infant formula.

Recently, she rang me to ask  if I had my copy of January 25th, of THE NEWS magazine.  I confirmed that I did.
“Auntie, check out page 8.  I’ll ring back in the evening to find out your view.  Thanks, auntie, Bye!”

Without referring to the magazine, I knew she was talking about breast-feeding, for I had read it myself, and it had confirmed my findings on the internet, several weeks before.

The title of the piece was

‘Mother’s Milk Not Better Than Baby formula’.  In the article, Prof. Sven Carlsen, head of the Norwegian team that conducted a research,  was quoted as saying ‘baby formula is as good as breast milk’. It claimed that ‘what really affects the health of a growing infant is the hormone balance in the womb before birth, according to the research.  This in turn influences a woman’s ability to breast feed, resulting in a misleading association between breast-feeding and child health.

The only benefit from breast-feeding supported by genuine evidence is a ‘small IQ advantage’, said the scientists.  And even this was yet to be properly confirmed.’

Another set of researchers of the subject may come out with another view in future, but right now, those mothers who are unable to breast-feed their infants, for whatever reason,  should stop feeling a failure, as breast-feeding is not what determines good mothering.

More importantly, medical personnel and NGOs on breast-feeding, should cool down and play only an advisory role, not a judgmental one, like they are doing in Nigeria at present; forcing our women to expose their breasts and feed their infants in public, in order to show that they’re complying.  To me, baring the breasts to the public while breast-feeding, is as bad as indecent dressing which exposes the breasts.

Instead, they should campaign on better parenting so that we can have a society of well-adjusted citizens.  There’s no law enforcing breast-feeding, and not being breast-fed will not turn a child into a hoodlum or a criminal.

If government and parents are alive to their various responsibilities concerning our citizens, we would live in a more conducive atmosphere of good health, peace and stability.  Breast milk will not do that for us.

The reasonable truth is that breast-feeding is nourishing, safe, cheap, and very convenient for both mother and child.  You don’t need to carry a flask, feeding bottles and warmers around with you when out of the house.  A small tin of infant formula is about nine hundred naira. How many Nigerian women can afford that for their children?  So, if you breast-feed your baby, you’re saving a lot of money.

I don’t know why the UN declared a day to encourage breast-feeding, but while it might be a problem for the western world and developed countries, I have never believed in the claims of NGOs in this country that ‘our women don’t want to breast-feed their babies.’

Maybe some professionals who have to return to their jobs may not be able to breast-feed their babies as long as our own mothers and grand mothers did, but the majority of our women do connect to their infants in breast-feeding for as long as they can.

A few years ago, I went to some villages to find out about breast-feeding.  All the women I spoke to, said that for them, there’s no option of using baby formula because they can’t afford it, and even if they could, they find breast-feeding more  convenient for their outdoor lifestyle.


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