Breast milk, yes please! World Breastfeeding week 2021

Liquid gold! Breast milk has come a long way to be recognized in Germany. Breastfeeding was once frowned upon, but in the last three decades, it has been encouraged.

Before my baby, I assumed that breastfeeding was automatic. I mean, I saw it around me while growing up, and no one batted an eyelid when a mother had to nurse a child until the internet brought breastfeeding shame and debates of covering up while nursing.

Breastfeeding is very cultural. In some societies, it is encouraged and is part of baby nutrition. In other communities, it is a volatile issue. The world health organization recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their lives. For any mother reading this, this article is not about shaming anyone who is not breastfeeding. Breastfeeding has many benefits but is not the only way that a mother can bond with her newborn. This post is about my discovery of breastfeeding in Germany in comparison to Kenya.

Breast Feeding in Germany

Before the 1920’s babies were breastfed either by the mothers or a wet nurse, but then industrialization happened and suddenly bottled cow milk was the in thing. Privileged women stopped breastfeeding as a status symbol.

Image from Gesund-ins-Leben

During this period, bottled milk was the safe and convenient option, while breastfeeding was seen as a nuisance since it restricted women’s movement. In addition, breastfeeding in Germany was also seen as a low-status symbol.

The low rates of breastfeeding were also heavily influenced by the Nazi era. In 1934, Doctor Johanna Haarer published the book “Die Deutsche Mutter und Ihr Erstes Kind” – A German Mother and her first child -(German language)’. This book advocated for children to grow up with as little attachment as possible. She further said that excessive caresses, kisses, love, or any kind of attention would spoil the child.

The aim and result of Haarer’s book were to raise soldiers for the Nazi regime. Therefore the women were required to deliberately ignore the needs of little children. Nevertheless, Haarer’s book sold 1.2 million copies, and it became the foundation of kindergarten education.

How Nazi-era undermined breastfeeding in Germany

What does this have to do with breastfeeding in Germany? Sigrid Chamberlain, a former social worker, and author told the Publik Forum that after the child was born, it was bathed, swaddled, and left alone for 24 hours. Only then was the mother finally allowed to breastfeed it. She further says that caregivers fed children on schedule. Breastfeeding took a maximum of 20 minutes, while bottle-feeding took a maximum of 10 minutes. The child did not eat on demand. If the child became hungry, it had to wait until the next mealtime. This recommendation from an expert, of course, discouraged many women from breastfeeding for any reason.

These factors led to a generation of many emotionally absent individuals. It also deprived new mothers of information about breastfeeding since not many people had breastfed before and didn’t know how to start and what to do when faced with different breastfeeding challenges.

The situation gradually changed from the 1970s as organizations such as La Leche Liga encouraged breastfeeding among the general public, doctors, and midwives. This move led to hospitals bearing signs that they are breastfeeding-friendly. In addition, women came together to form ‘ Stillgruppe’ Breastfeeding groups. They exchanged ideas and experiences, encouraged each other, and created a support system as they learned the ropes.

Current breastfeeding situation

And all the effort worked to teaching mothers how to breastfeed and allowing them the autonomy to choose. The Robert Koch Institute says mothers in Germany breastfeed an average of eight months in recent research. Meanwhile, the Federal Ministry of Food and Agriculture says that 90% of mothers intend to breastfeed, but it doesn’t always work. Only 68% of the women end up breastfeeding exclusively after birth. The ministry acknowledges mothers need more support with breastfeeding because they have to learn it. Additionally, the ministry’s research showed that Germany is only a moderate breastfeeding environment. Nevertheless, a targeted communication strategy would help increase the acceptance of breastfeeding.

Amidst the challenges, Germany’s legislature supports breastfeeding by financing maternity protection and offering parental allowance for the primary caregiver. This legal and financial support means mothers do not always have to rush back to work after three months. Instead, they can stay as long as three years.

Breastfeeding in Kenya

I started this article by saying as I was growing up in the 90’s-2000’2, breastfeeding was normal. However, the length of time is what varies. Kenya’s Ministry of Health says the number of children exclusively breastfed for six months increased from 13% in 2003 to 61% in 2014.

What the Kenyan government is doing to increase and sustain breastfeeding

Two initiatives stand out as a factor for the increased level of breastfeeding in Kenya. The first one is adopting the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI ), launched in 1991 by the World Health Organization and UNICEF. BHFI is when a hospital has implemented the ten steps to successful breastfeeding. The steps include training the health care personnel and post-partum breastfeeding support, such as training and counseling new mothers.

The second one is the baby-friendly community initiative. In this activity, the community takes part in protecting, promoting, and supporting breastfeeding mothers. More concretely, the support is through the formation and training of community mother support groups.  

Challenges facing breastfeeding in Kenya

But even though Kenya is doing well with 61% of babies exclusively breastfed, there are still some challenges.

In comparison to Germany, Kenya’s parental leave is three months with full pay plus any annual leave days. Extension is only at the discretion of the employer.

Socioeconomic factors also play a significant role in how long a mother can exclusively breastfeed a baby. One of the main challenges the working mother faces is a workplace that doesn’t support breastfeeding. However, the government has a guideline on how best to support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace.

As I researched on this topic, I was astounded at how something so natural could also be political. I believe society should be more open to breastfeeding and give room for women to decide if and how they want to do it. Those who wish to but cannot breastfeed should have timely access to support to help them achieve that. I hope on this you have learned something or three about breastfeeding in these two countries. I am happy to answer any questions in the comment section.

You can find additional resources for first-time mothers in Germany here. For first-time mothers in Kenya check this out

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