Mother's natural option

Mother's natural option

Cross-country breastfeeding is gaining popularity in Thailand

Mother's natural option
Five-month-old Pornpivat.

Pornthip Eakjeen may live more than 1,000km from her five-month-old son, but the long distance doesn't stop her from breastfeeding him.

"Everyone wants the best for their child," said Pornthip. "I want my son to have breast milk because that's what best for him."

Pornthip, 30, lives in the eastern province of Rayong with her husband but works in Chon Buri. Her son stays with his paternal grandparents in Hat Yai, Songkhla. Every day, she pumps milk from her breasts -- eight times a day -- taking about 30 minutes each time. It's a routine that's been going on for three months. If she fails to pump the milk at night, she does it in the car on her 50km morning drive to work.

At work, Pornthip makes use of the company's breastfeeding room to pump and store her milk in a zip-lock bag. The bag is kept frozen. At the end of each week, the bags are packed into a foam box, ready to be shipped to her son in Hat Yai.

"Is it tiring? Yes. But I'm still happy," said Pornthip. "I'll do this until my milk runs out, or until my son doesn't want it anymore."

Pornthip works as a supervisor in the internal audit department at Thai Summit Harness PCL in Chon Buri. The company provides a breastfeeding room, where their female employees enjoy a private place to pump and store their milk.

This programme -- including permission for breastfeeding breaks -- has been part of the company's policy since 2011. So far, this female-dominated company has reported a low turnover rate and good productivity.

More than 20 employees -- including Pornthip -- utilise this room daily. The medically-tested facility is monitored by a nurse and equipment is supplied for free. It is open 24 hours to suit both morning and night shifts.

"It's a long-term investment on our part," said general manager Peerapong Soonthornwipart. "We want to take care of our employees' children as though they are our own. As a company, we benefit from having happy employees. Everything then follows with high quality in work. If they are worried and stressed, it affects our production."

About 1,000 companies across the country now provide facilities for breastfeeding. This campaign is quite popular, and interprovincial bus provider Transport Company Limited is now offering a free service to ship frozen breast milk this month to commemorate Mother's Day. The cross-country breast milk effort has been supported by the Thai Breastfeeding Centre Foundation and Unicef.

Every Sunday, Pornthip takes the 10kg foam box to a bus station in Rayong city centre. Shipping costs around 300 baht weekly. The bus leaves before 5pm, travelling overnight down South.

At 10am the next day, Chay Boonrattanang -- Pornthip's father-in-law -- waits at the bus station in Hat Yai, ready to take the box home to where his grandson Pornpivat is waiting.

Five-month-old Pornpivat was born prematurely -- weighing only 2.4kg. Now, at 7kg, he is a healthy and happy baby who barely gets sick. Breast milk is his only source of food.

To prepare a meal for Pornpivat, Aree, the boy's grandmother, soaks a sealed bag of milk in warm water to bring it to room temperature. The boy drinks milk four times a day, taking about 600ml each time. The foam box his mother sends usually lasts a week.

"We have to store some of the packs in our neighbour's freezer, as well. They're happy to help," said Aree. "Some people have asked why we don't just buy powdered milk rather than go through all this trouble. But, the truth is, it's no trouble at all. It's just something we do to take care of our grandson."

While the family seems to work harmoniously cross-country to care for Pornpivat, it was not easy getting to this point. Everyone was sceptical when Pornthip first introduced the idea. In their mind, cross-country breastfeeding seemed impossible.

"When I was pregnant, my husband always said we'd send our son to live with his parents in the South, and that the boy would be raised with powdered milk. He'd be smart and develop quickly, just as they said in the TV commercials," said Pornthip.

Unconvinced, Pornthip researched throughout her pregnancy. The suggestions she found pointed in the same direction: breast milk is best for children. She herself was breastfed by her mother. She never got sick, nor was she hospitalised, and also did well in school.

To convince her husband to support breastfeeding, Pornthip hacked into her husband's Facebook account and joined all the breastfeeding groups. More information started to appear on his newsfeed. Bit by bit, he was slowly in favour of breastfeeding. Pornthip then went on to convince the rest of the family.

According to Dr Yupayong Hangchaovanich, secretary of the Thai Breastfeeding Centre Foundation, breast milk reportedly contains over 200 types of nutrients -- which aid in immunity and growth -- compared to 36 found in powdered milk. Breast milk also doesn't cause constipation or allergy in children.

Pornthip shows all the milk packs she has collected this week.

And breast milk is a cheaper option. An ordinary baby would consume 5,000 to 6,000 baht worth of powdered milk per month. Pornthip reportedly spends about 2,000 baht on shipment and petrol monthly. All the materials are provided by her company.

Long-distance breastfeeding has been going on quietly for close to a decade, said Dr Yupayong. It was initially pioneered by hospital nurses who lived far from their children.

However, even with these benefits, only 12% of mothers in Thailand feed their children with breast milk solely in the first six months of their lives -- among the lowest statistics within Asia.

Like Pornthip, many are living separately from their children. They are only allowed 90 days for maternity leave. Long distances, work, pain, fear of saggy breasts and gaining weight all prevent a large population of mothers from breastfeeding, opting instead for the chemically-engineered powdered milk.

"Not many people realise that breast milk can be stored for around three months, or up to a year depending on the type of freezer they use. The nutrients won't go away," said Dr Yupayong. She added that the process brings a mother and child closer, creating a bond even though they live far from one another.

Due to marketing schemes -- which include advertising, giving away free samples, freebies, and discounts -- powdered milk is still regarded by many as being better for toddlers. Some of the ads went as far as claiming to make children smarter.

"That's an immorally wrong practice," said Napat Phisanbut, communication for development officer at Unicef Thailand. "The family deserves to know and make their choices accordingly based on correct information."

Those ads have successfully instilled unshakeable belief into many parents. There is still no firm state regulations on powdered milk and baby formulas in this country.

"We want all mothers to know that breastfeeding is not that difficult. Society now views that breast milk is of a high, unachievable standard when it should be society's normal practice," said Napat.

"We have to bring breast milk back as a norm. Breastfeeding is still doable. Don't give your children less than what they naturally deserve."

Chay and Aree with their only grandchild, Pornpivat.

A freezer within Thai Summit Harness PCL where it stores the employees' milk.

Chay takes the foam box full of frozen breast milk from the bus.

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