by Vannie Arrocha Morán
Which country has the shortest duration of breastfeeding? Last year, the Pan American Health Organization and the World Health Organization compared the average duration (Spanish) of breastfeeding in 21 countries throughout the region. This average represents the sum of exclusive breastfeeding (EBF) and partial breastfeeding (which includes other fluids or solid foods before 6 months of age). Panama is the country with the shortest duration, at just 6.3 months.
According to the WHO and UNICEF, breastfeeding strengthens the mother-baby connection, provides the best nutrition for newborns and preemies, and prevents diarrhea, one of the leading causes of death in children under 2. What’s more, breastfeeding offers the mother countless health benefits, from helping her return to her pre-pregnancy weight to reducing her risk of breast cancer and osteoporosis.
So where does the problem of low breastfeeding rates lie? It’s rooted in a lack of awareness among society’s stakeholders, including ignorance of the laws in favor of breastfeeding. In Panama, there are several legal provisions (related to work and family) that seek to promote breastfeeding.
Similarly, frontline health professionals have insufficient knowledge about how to promote best practices in breastfeeding. The government and the private sector also need to recognize breastfeeding as a short-term investment, given that it reduces children’s chances of getting sick, thereby cutting down on the number of missed worked days by parents to care for sick children.
In the workplace, the practice of offering lactation rooms for working mothers who are breastfeeding is still uncommon in Panama and other countries in the region, as we mentioned a while back in a post on First Steps.
As was previously reflected upon in this post, the success of exclusive breastfeeding also depends on family and community support, since the duties of a breastfeeding mother require commitment, proper diet, and adequate time and rest.
In Panama, as in other countries in the region, women shoulder a heavy burden in terms of work and home responsibilities. Over 541,000 Panamanian women form part of the nation’s workforce. Those women who are married or partnered work an average of 38 hours per week. Additionally, they perform 29 hours of housework per week, according to the 2011 Time Use Survey [link in Spanish].
If we tack on to these other duties the task of nursing an infant from his first hour of life until he turns 6 months old, it seems unlikely for a mother to succeed without the support of her family, community and society as a whole. What changes need to occur in communities to keep women from giving up on exclusive breastfeeding?
Vannie Arrocha Morán is a journalist and outside consultant to the IDB on the promotion of early childhood initiatives in Panama.