This is the 22nd year of World Breastfeeding Week, three years short of the number of years I’ve been promoting breastfeeding. How did someone who aspired to be an English teacher and came out of the anti-war and feminist movements in the 1970s end up with a career as a breastfeeding advocate? Let me explain.
I was convinced by my experience and the evidence. I exclusively breastfed my two children despite doubts of my mother, who had not breastfed me, and an elderly relative, who was shocked that I wasn’t giving water to my baby. La Leche League’s book, The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding, provided the evidence and the encouragement I needed to withstand these naysayers. Being married to a public health specialist and living in Ghana and Cameroon where breastfeeding was the norm made it easier for me to carry out my decision to exclusively breastfeed. Knowledge, self-efficacy, and a supportive environment proved to be the successful “formula” for me. The most compelling evidence was two children who thrived for the first six months on just breastmilk.
I was angry. In the mid-80s, we moved to Pakistan. I visited a hospital in Quetta and saw baby bottles at the head of the beds of dehydrated babies. In less than one hour, I found 30 different kinds of infant formula in three shops in the Quetta bazaar. Over one-third of the brands did not provide feeding instructions in Urdu. My studies in international development had focused on basic human needs. What was more basic than the right to nutritious and safe food? How could people be denied access to life-saving information? Why were women being told that they were incapable of adequately feeding their children? I felt that all women deserved to have the knowledge, support, skills, and confidence that had made breastfeeding a rewarding experience for me. As noted in this year’s World Breastfeeding Week brochure, “Breastfeeding is the great equalizer, giving every child a fair and best start in life.” My sense of outrage and demand for rights and equity kicked in.
I was inspired. My discovery in Quetta led to an assignment with UNICEF, working in collaboration with USAID, the Ministry of Health, and the Pakistan Pediatrics Association to promote and protect breastfeeding. We organized traveling seminars throughout the country led by Drs. Derrick and Patrice Jelliffe and Dr. Audrey Naylor, world authorities on breastfeeding. I would encounter many other bold and tireless champions, such as Dr. Priyani Soysa, a driving force in Sri Lanka for breastfeeding promotion and legislation to restrict marketing of breastmilk substitutes and extend paid maternity leave. I was inspired by mothers who were early adopters of optimal feeding practices. Under a thatched roof in 100-degree heat in northern Ghana, I sat with a group of 20 members of a Red Cross mothers club. These women, most of whom were illiterate, referred to the youngest person in the circle as their “experimental child” because she was exclusively breastfed.
I was rewarded. Although much still needs to be done, global trends show progress in improving breastfeeding practices. Sri Lanka’s exclusive breastfeeding rate increased from 10 percent in 1987 to 76 percent in 2007. From 1994 to 2007, the national exclusive breastfeeding rate in Bangladesh hovered between 42 and 46 percent and then shot up to 64 percent in 2011. In Alive & Thrive program areas, the rate reached more than 80 percent. Changes of this magnitude have contributed significantly to reducing annual global child deaths from 12.6 million in 1990 to only 6.6 million in 2010, despite increases in population. On a personal level, my reward has been holding healthy, thriving babies who were exclusively breastfed and meeting their mothers (photo above).
The theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week is Breastfeeding: A Winning Goal for Life. The need to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding remains as important today as it was when I started my career. My daughter and the millions of other women who will give birth this year deserve the support of their family, community, health care providers, employers, and legislators to make this goal a reality.
By Luann Martin
Photo: Author, Luann Martin in Bangladesh with Limon and his mother Sultana, the subject of Alive & Thrive’s Tiny Tales video series. Luann is Alive & Thrive’s Associate Director, Communications.