Breastfeeding in Kashmir is declining at an alarming rate

Breastfeeding is beneficial not only for infants but to mothers as well. But the current trend is alarming. Read more...

Breastfeeding is one of the best and beneficial acts that a mother can do for her child. But in recent years, breastfeeding has taken a backseat in Kashmir. The reasons are several: more women have started going out for work, lack of awareness about benefits of breastfeeding, lack of proper infrastructure at public places to breastfeed a baby, etc. Doctors believe that depriving a child from breastmilk is bad for the health of infants as well as their mother. 

Reasons to decline

Khadija Banu, 34, (name changed) is a government employee and works in the social welfare department. Banu says, “We do not have a nursery in our office so I cannot bring my child to the office. Knowing this, I have started feeding the baby from a bottle pretty early, as it was easy for my family members to do the same in my absence”, said Khadija. 

Haleema Akhtar, 29, from Srinagar feeds her child from bottle

“There is nothing wrong in feeding milk from a bottle, I watch a lot of advertisements daily on television about this”, she adds. She said that initially she breastfed her child, but soon her health started deteriorating and she became weak. However, doctor Urmila Shafiq, a physician, says that it happens initially, later women become fat and gain more weight. According to Dr Shafiq, breastfeeding their babies protects mothers against osteoporosis and hip fracture at later stages in life. Dr Shafiq further adds that, “Breastfeeding helps a mother’s body return to the pre-pregnancy stage faster. While breastfeeding, a mother burns from 500 to 1,500 calories per day. It is one such process that helps to lose excess pregnancy weight without proper dieting or any other exercise.”

Another expert, Dr Yasmeen, says, “In many cases, frequent pregnancies make mothers stop breastfeeding, depriving their children of their natural birth right”. According to her, generally, new mothers are unaware of the significance of continuing breastfeeding for a minimum period of two years, and the cessation before two years is justified by several reasons. “The most common reason for stopping breast feeding was cessation of breastmilk (63.8%), (57.6%) and (24.4%) in Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, respectively,” she revealed in her research paper. 

Lack of awareness among mothers 

Breastfeeding is a give and take process between child and mother. It plays a pivotal role in the emotional and spiritual development of babies and increases the bond of affection with mothers. Apart from the spiritual and emotional development, breastfeeding protects babies against respiratory illness, sudden infant death syndrome, botulism and other diseases. 

Dr Syeda Tabasum, a paediatrician, says that cases of respiratory illness, ear infection, pneumonia, allergies, asthma among children have increased tremendously in recent years. “Mostly, these cases are getting noticed among those babies, who did not consume their mother’s milk in the initial months. We are also witnessing tooth decay, cavities, etc. among these babies”, said Syeda. 

Former president of Doctors Association of Kashmir (DAK), Dr Sohail Naik says, “Breastfeeding has countless health benefits. By breastfeeding, a mother can influence the present and future health of her child. Infants who are being breastfed properly are reported to have fewer incidences of vomiting and diarrhoea. It also gives protection to children against gastroenteritis, and reduces the risk of chronic constipation, colic and other stomach related diseases. Several studies revealed that properly breastfed infants develop higher IQs and improved nervous systems later.”

Dr Sohail Naik has done extensive research on effects of exclusive breastfeeding. He says that the prevalence of Exclusive Breastfeeding (EBF – 36%) in Kashmir is lower than the national figure (64%). He opines that the health department should support breastfeeding and immediate measures should be taken to promote exclusive breastfeeding to decrease the infant mortality rate.

Dr Naik further points out that there are no breastfeeding promotional activities taking place in the entire Kashmir. He suggests that breastfeeding promotion programmes in Communities, Anganwadis, Schools, Government and Private hospitals should be given special attention. “Hence, promotion of breastfeeding during the first six months of life and continuation of breastfeeding after six months along with appropriate complementary feeding and focus on the factors associated with EBF need to be addressed,” he adds. 

Lack of dedicated areas in public spaces for mothers 

Zoona Akhtar 38, has been going to Srinagar’s Government Medical College for regular medical follow ups after delivery. But at the hospital, Zoona does not find any designated private place for mothers where she can breastfeed her baby. “It’s a matter of privacy. No one can breastfeed their child in crowded places. It’s declining because women feel shy to breastfeed in such places,” Zoona says. 

Dr Rabiya Hassan (named changed), a prominent fertility specialist who retired as a head of Gynaecology and Obstetrics at Government Medical College Srinagar believes that the Government should work towards creating a private space for women at offices and hospitals. She, however, expressed serious concerns highlighting the issue, “In hospitals (where a majority of the workforce is women), educational institutes, or government departments, do not exist a separate space where a mother could take a small break and feed the child”.

Misconception among women

Generally, there are numerous misconceptions among the women in Kashmir which are the prime causes of decline in breastfeeding. Many women believe that exclusive breastfeeding will make them weak and they will be disfigured. 

However, Dr Sohail Naik argues that these misconceptions are far from reality. He further adds, “Breastfeeding can reduce the risk of breast cancer among women.” He suggests that to encourage breastfeeding in Kashmir, mothers should be psychologically motivated and awareness should be created among them about its importance. 

What is expected?

In 2003, the World Health Organization and UNICEF recommended “enacting imaginative legislation protecting the breastfeeding rights of working women and establishing means for its enforcement” by all governments. As per a study done in 2019, it has been noticed that breastfeeding gets affected by maternal employment in India. The systematic review revealed that interventions at the workplace are important in protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding among working mothers. 

For raising awareness, Social Preventive Medicine (SPM) of Government Medical College, Srinagar, has initiated a unique step by creating a separate room where mothers can breastfeed their babies. More such initiatives are expected from private and public departments.

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