We need babies to be breastfed, because this is how we are going to keep them healthy and strong, says Professor Anna Coutsoudis, renowned public health scientist in UKZN’s Department of Paediatrics and Child Health.

Speaking at an event on the Medical School campus to acknowledge recently trained breastfeeding counsellors, Coutsoudis said the theme for this year’s International Breastfeeding Week was community support for breastfeeding.

This meshed perfectly with the University’s Breastfeeding Counsellor Training Programme piloted in Cato Manor and the Breastmilk Bank established at the iThemba Lethu Home for Orphans.

In the breastfeeding programme, the peer counsellors - themselves mothers - are trained to support other mothers in the community and are equipped with information on the benefits of breastmilk. The Breastmilk Bank initiative, supported by the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health, is supplied by mothers with excess milk.

The keynote address at the event was delivered by the Director of Nutrition at the National Department of Health, Ms Lynn Moeng, who lamented the fact that a recent health survey showed that ‘in South Africa, only eight out of 100 mothers gave their children solely breastmilk for the first six months’.

Moeng asked the 70 mothers present – all of whom are undergoing training as breastfeeding counsellors - how many of them had exclusively breastfed their infants for six months and was visibly amazed when the majority raised their hands. Coutsoudis said this was an indication of the success of the training programme in that not only were these mothers being equipped to support other women but in the process were benefiting themselves by using best infant feeding practices.

Moeng, echoing the sentiments of Coutsoudis that ‘breastmilk remains your best choice’, said while maternity leave was often cited as an obstacle to exclusive breastfeeding in the first six  months, there were other challenges young women encountered. These included hospitals that did not support breastfeeding, family members who told young mothers to use porridge to encourage their babies to sleep through the night and the misconception that babies would be healthier if they were fed formula milk.  

She suggested a way to encourage the exclusive use of breastmilk was to educate families, ‘in particular mothers-in-law or grannies’, as they often proffered advice on how to raise children. Healthcare workers should also be properly informed and hospitals should be “baby-friendly” zones.

Ms Zandile Magasela, a recently trained peer-counsellor, strongly advocated the exclusive use of breastmilk and abstinence from smoking, drinking and unprotected sex.

Magasela, who identified a tendency for people to think mothers didn’t have money if they breastfed, said ‘breastmilk is power’! She thanked Coutsoudis and the University for inviting her to be part of the training programme.

Moeng and Dean of the School of Health Sciences, Professor Sabiha Essack, handed out certificates to recently trained counsellors who had completed the 12-month training programme.

The day, also the start of the College of Health Sciences’ celebration of Women’s Month, was rounded off with a presentation by Ms Helen Mulol of the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health who is conducting a study on the exclusivity of breastmilk intake and the associated health outcomes.

Mulol outlined the World Health Organization’s guidelines on breastfeeding which state that infants should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months for optimal development and health. She thanked and commended the peer counsellors for participating in the programme.

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