Breastfeeding safe to provide amid the pandemic

Breastfeeding safe to provide amid the pandemic

More than a year into the pandemic, adults in Thailand and around the world are now waiting to receive the first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine for protection. But for our youngest, it is the mother's milk that will best protect them from infections and illness. As a mother of three, I know firsthand the importance of breastmilk, the baby's first vaccine.

Like all mothers, I wanted more than anything to give my children the best start in life upon giving birth -- a strong foundation for their long-term physical, emotional and cognitive development. Breastmilk was my superpower, through which I was able to provide all the nutrients, antibodies, hormones and antioxidants my children needed to grow and develop their brains. So I made a conscious effort to breastfeed in the first hour after birth and exclusively throughout their first six months of life, as Unicef and WHO advise.

But in a pandemic, some may wonder, how safe is it for mothers to breastfeed? Coronavirus has not been found in breastmilk to date, so breastfeeding remains the best way to protect infants from the disease. Even if a mother is infected with or at risk of contracting Covid-19, she should continue breastfeeding while taking hygiene measures such as wearing a mask while feeding. This is because the benefits of breastmilk, such as boosted immunity for infants, still outweigh potential risks of transmission.

As we mark World Breastfeeding Week in the first week of August, it is unfortunate that the exclusive breastfeeding rate in Thailand remains one of the lowest in the region. The 2019 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey by the National Statistical Office and Unicef found that only 14% of infants in Thailand are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life, a significant drop from 23% in 2016. Too many children here are missing an opportunity to have the healthiest start in life.

But let me be clear -- breastfeeding is not easy, and it is not just the mother's responsibility to shoulder. I faced a steep learning curve in 1999 when my first child was born. I learned that breastfeeding takes hundreds of hours of commitment as well as support from your family and society.

In South Korea where I grew up, women know the importance of breastfeeding and a support system is in place. Many hospitals educate and train new mothers in breastfeeding with the support of nurses. Sanhujori facilities or Korean postnatal care centres help ensure that mothers can continue breastfeeding and give the best care for their newborns.

Despite all this support, I struggled with breastfeeding my daughter. My breasts hurt, my body ached and my mind was exhausted. I felt unprepared for what it is really like, and I almost gave up.

But with a strong belief in the benefits of breastfeeding, I kept trying. I sought advice from my nurses and help at home from my husband and my mother. Over time and through many ups and downs, it became easier and less painful. I was able to cherish these moments and develop a special bond with my daughter and, later on, my second and third child.

But not every mother has access to this crucial support from her family, healthcare system, employers and government.

Educating mothers about the importance of breastfeeding is only the first step to improving rates in Thailand. Raising awareness among the wider population can help create demand for baby-friendly policies and services to support nursing mothers.

Health workers can also play a supporting role by encouraging and training mothers to breastfeed and ensuring that they are not separated from their newborn after birth so that they can breastfeed within the first hour of life. And their guidance and support on breastfeeding and its many challenges must continue when nursing mothers return home. Health workers must also help enforce Thailand's Control of Marketing Promotion of Infant and Young Child Act, which bans the harmful marketing and advertising of breastmilk substitutes, such as free infant formula distribution at hospitals.

Breastfeeding working mothers need support from their employers and government, too. Family-friendly policies, such as affordable childcare, time and a hygienic space for breastfeeding at work and at least 18 weeks of paid maternity as well as paternity leave, are critical to helping them continue breastfeeding. These policies are also an investment in early childhood development -- the smartest investment in human capital and our future.

Every mother wants their child to be healthy and thrive and, as a nursing mother, I was no exception. This unprecedented time of a global pandemic calls on us all, including the government, businesses and families, to make breastfeeding and its immense benefits a reality for every mother and child in Thailand through our support and commitment to family-friendly homes, hospitals, workplaces and society.

Kyungsun Kim is Unicef Representative for Thailand.

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