LANI visibly gained pounds when she reported to work after going on maternity leave. Sensitive to her officemates’ comments about her weight gain, she cut back on meals and snacks. She recalled that not long after her dieting, she started giving her baby formula milk more often because she observed that he was no longer satisfied when she nursed him.

While the family ate at the restaurant, a four-month-old baby in the pram sucked on a pacifier. Watching his relations eat, the baby pursed his lips and sucked harder on the pacifier. Relations noticed and an uncle offered a piece of bread, which the baby grabbed and popped into his mouth. Relatives expressed their delight and someone took a photo of the baby sucking on the morsel.

The socio-cultural setting challenges the practice of promoting exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) for the first six months in the country.

Due to the sustained promotion by the Department of Health (DOH) and other breastfeeding advocates, breastfeeding is more widely accepted nowadays. However, maximizing the gains for both child and mother from EBF is often derailed by the best intentions and limited awareness of members of a mother’s inner social circle.

Demolishing myths

Mothers should keep in mind that their baby’s health will mirror what its mother is eating.

Thus, the Food Nutrition and Research Institute (FNRI) emphasizes that instead of dieting to regain their post-pregnancy bodies, nursing mothers should focus on eating food that will help them produce more milk.

This means foods rich in protein, iron and calcium, such as shellfish, small fish, green leafy vegetables, fruits, and fluids, like water, soup and juice.

Breastfeeding requires from 500 to 1,000 calories a day. Proper nutrition and rest are important for mothers to nurse effectively.

According to the Breastfeeding Tsek (or Tama Sapat EKsklusibo) campaign of the Department of Health (DOH), which promotes breastfeeding for child survival, “practically all mothers can breastfeed.” There are only “few true contraindications” that prevent mothers from nursing, such as heart failure and serious kidney, liver or lung disease.

The more frequently a baby nurses, the more milk his mother will produce. This contradicts another myth that some women are not fit to nurse because of small breasts, lack of milk, or other misconceptions.

Another widely held belief that sick mothers should not breastfeed to avoid infecting their babies is also not true, points out the DOH in its website. Exposed to illness or infection, a nursing mother will manufacture antibodies, which are found in her milk. Thus, instead of suckling her sickness, a nursing infant will imbibe the antibodies in her mother’s milk, which will also protect the baby.

Even a malnourished mother should still breastfeed because “breast milk is designed to provide for and protect the baby even in times of hardship and famine.” In evacuation centers during disasters, a mother’s milk is infinitely safer than using formula milk donations, which require boiling water and sterilized milk bottles and rubber nipples.

Circles of champions

This year’s celebration of Breastfeeding Month should encourage public and private stakeholders to form champions for breastfeeding best practices by strengthening the inner circle of family, friends, and work place that strongly influence a mother’s decision to breastfeed or not her baby.

The World Health Organization notes that improving the practice of optimal breastfeeding practices, like the EBF, will prevent as much as 13 percent of the deaths of 0.6 million children aged five years and below every year.

In the country, out of every 100 infants aged 0-5 months old, 36 were exclusively breastfed; 37 were breastfed but also given complementary food; and 27 were fed with formula milk and other foods, according to the 7th National Nutrition Survey conducted by the Department of Science and Technology and the FNRI.

Often, in Filipino families, the decision-makers over the feeding of a baby are not the mothers but grandmothers, mothers-in-law, and spouses or partners. The decision to give a baby a pacifier instead of its mother’s breast in public places is dictated by social decorum or prejudice that only the poor and uneducated will nurse in public.

Strengthening the circle of champions for breastfeeding means reaching out through education to those who shape decisively the future of mother and child.