By Khairoon Abbas
What is the first thing many of us do when we wake up in the morning? We may not proudly admit it, but we check our mobile phones first to check the time, and then we scroll through our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram newsfeeds to see what our friends are up to and get the breaking news of the day. We do all this, while we are still in bed.
As a 31-year old woman and mother, I realize just how lucky we are to be part of information or digital age or new media age, where we have access to information at our finger tips 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
You no longer need to be affluent to get online. People from all walks of life and from almost all corners of the world have access to the Internet. This era makes the adage – information is power – realizable.
If well used, information from the net can impact positively on our lives through broadening our understanding on a wide spectrum of issues – health, economics, political and environment and the list is endless.
Yet, evidence shows that young women, especially mothers, are not taking advantage of the knowledge available especially on important issues like breastfeeding. It is not uncommon to hear young mothers say: “I cannot breastfeed, I don’t have enough milk”. Others would say: “I do not want to gain weight, I want to maintain my shape.” Really? At the cost of your baby’s health?
Internet use in Tanzania
The rapidly growing number of Internet users in Tanzania through Internet-enabled devices like mobile phones and other gadgets assures us of continuous access to knowledge.
Declining costs in Internet services over the years and wide accessibility makes ignorance on current news and knowledge inexcusable.
In fact, according to the minister for Communications, Science and Technology, Prof Makame Mbarawa, by 2008, Tanzania only had 2.7 million Internet users, but with changing trends of science and technology, more Tanzanians are taking part.
Social media is currently connecting a number of people across geographical zones and cultures with the youth and young adults being the main users.
More and more youth and young adults specifically are increasingly informed now and depend on the Internet for information on educational and professional purposes.
As a young mother, what comes to mind is how the Internet can help improve understanding on childbirth, parenting, nutrition and all kinds of information pertaining to rearing children and what immediately comes to mind is breastfeeding.
What about breastfeeding?
It has been established from time immemorial that breastfeeding is not only the most normal way of providing infants with essential nutrients for their healthy growth and development, but also in building their brain and immunity.
Breast milk is best for babies and toddlers. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends exclusive breastfeeding for infants up to six months of age, with continued breastfeeding along with appropriate complementary foods up to two years of age or beyond.
All this information is accessible on our mobile phones – the gadgets that all of us depend on for information, direction (GPS), and for sanity by allowing us to stay close – despite the distance – from our loved ones, thanks to Apps like WhatsApp.
But what is sad to witness are the current trends in just this one important area: breastfeeding – where evidence shows that despite the abundant knowledge accessible from our phones on its importance in human life, exclusive breastfeeding or breastfeeding practice in general is almost “extinct”.
While many of us and especially the old generation of Tanzanians have enjoyed the benefits of breast milk, the same cannot be said right now in the country.
With a staggering 42 per cent of children stunted and 16 per cent underweight according to the Demographic and Health Survey (TDHS, 2010), Tanzania is more likely than not to have a big proportion of the children unable to benefit from the education provided and become effective citizens or future leaders.
This survey shows the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding in infants aged 0-6 months at 50 per cent. If you look closely, 81 per cent of infants aged less than two months were on breast milk only, and this proportion declined to 51 per cent among infants at 2-3 months and 23 per cent among those aged 4-5 months (TDHS, 2010).
Unfortunately, this is happening in this new media age, where we as parents are constantly online and connected. It is a shame!
Without apportioning blame to women, I strongly think, we as mothers, are shunning this responsibility that in fact boils down to our own health and that of our children who at infancy, only feel secure in the arms of their mothers.
The more knowledgeable we are the better decision-makers we become because information exposes all of us to useful options from which we choose what works best for us. But again, we all need to invest time in this if we want to bring up healthy, intelligent babies.
So, my question is: Why don’t we spend time online researching the benefits of exclusive and extended breastfeeding? Why are we so easily swayed by our social networks to tweet, share and browse the blogs on latest fashions, scandals and gossips, while we could benefit from more solid information that goes a long way to improving the health of our children?
As an African and Muslim woman, I’m a firm believer in breastfeeding, and mainly because our African culture is built on close parenting – we have always done this! Many of us were raised sleeping next to our mothers, feeding from their breasts and enjoying the warmth that shielded us from the ‘outside’ world. Raising children was one of the tasks of a community, hence we all felt secure.
Additionally, all religions in the world strongly advocate breastfeeding. Judaism, Christianity and Islam encourage and almost demand that mothers breastfeed their infants.
For example, in my religion, Islam, breastfeeding is a proven right of the infant. The Holy Qu’ran states that: “Mothers may breastfeed their children two complete years for whoever wishes to complete the nursing [period]” (Al-Bawarah 2:233).
As a young mother, the Internet (apart from the guidance from doctors and nurses) became my saviour in relation to information on breastfeeding and how to cope with the tasks of motherhood.
I prepared for motherhood when I was pregnant with my first born by researching and reading as much as I could from the Internet using my mobile phone.
I knew that I needed to somehow be informed about what this thing called motherhood entailed, what and how I would feed and best take care of my son.
Certainly, this self-education (and one has to be careful because the Internet is also full of junk material) may not replace other sources of knowledge, for example, from doctors, family members and especially our own mothers, but it is an inevitable step for any mother to remain informed as we brace ourselves for challenging tasks of motherhood.
My mother, whose support has been invaluable, is also amazed by my sustained quest for information on child bearing and rearing.
For example, how many of us know that it is not recommended to feed porridge to babies below six months because their digestive system is not ready to absorb anything else other than milk?
If a mother is informed then she is unlikely going to listen to some friends or family members, whose unsubstantiated experiences may result in more harm than good to the baby. Our babies deserve what is best for them and we as mothers must put their needs first.
Support for mothers
I can list many barriers to continued breastfeeding, such as working mothers returning to work after a short three-month maternity leave, the feeling of not producing enough milk and not doing anything about it (like improving nutrition or seeking professional support), and last, but not least, starting solid foods too early, that is, less than six months of age.
Many mothers feel societal pressure to lose “baby weight” as soon as their child is born. What does this entail? Quite often, you will find new mothers dieting and not eating enough because they want to get back to their pre-pregnancy weight.
On the contrary, the right thing to do is to eat well so that you can produce enough breast milk for your child. In our Tanzanian setting, eating well for new mothers includes lots of soup, porridge, drinking a lot of water and eating our traditional foods that are filled with unparalleled nutrition, fruits and vegetables.
All these issues can be addressed through increased support for mothers in Tanzania by first supporting themselves through acquiring knowledge.
Undoubtedly, in any culture childbirth and child-rearing are a family and community affair, and one may not escape overwhelming cultural influences on key decisions such as breastfeeding or weaning the baby or giving solid foods.
Members of extended families, including husbands, in laws, brothers and sisters remain central in exerting pressure on or influencing mothers to give up breastfeeding or opt for baby porridge or formula and anchoring their conviction on the benefits of all this to the many stories of how they were brought up.
Mothers should simply stay grounded and informed and realize that it is a mother’s decision to choose what is best for her baby.
Without undermining the role of cultural practices and valuable experiences in child bearing and rearing that exists in our communities, mothers are responsible in safeguarding the human rights of their babies by making sure that their needs override all.
Khairoon Abbas, busy mama to two boys, is a staunch advocate of breastfeeding, having breastfed both her kids until they were two years of age, with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. She continues to inspire other mothers to place nutritional needs of their children first by taking important initial steps: exclusive breastfeeding for six-months and extended breastfeeding for 24 months.