According to the 2015 Tanzania Demographic Health Survey with only 59 percent of children are exclusively breastfed in their first six month of life with over 40 percent children lacking the essential service, a factor which contributes immensely to the deaths of under-five children.
In an interview with The Guardian recently, a number of mothers and experts expressed concerns that the number of un-breastfed children in the county may raise if strong coordinated measures will not be taken.
HamidaJumanne a resident Msasani in Kinondoni District, Dar es Salaam says she failed to exclusively breastfeed her children due to several challenges including lack of enough time and support.
Hamida, a mother of three, Johnson, Goodlucky and Judith says her children were only exclusively breastfed for the first three months but after she resumed work the service became difficult.
“I remember it was hard to exclusively breastfeed my children for the first six months due to various challenges, my job wants me in office early in the morning and releases me at 4pm, due to traffic I take one to two hours on the way to reach home, so it was difficult leaving my children the who day without something to eat, I was forced to give them alternative milk to enable them survive,” she said.
Hamida acknowledges that despite having laws which requires employers to release their breastfeeding workers early, some of them do not obey the laws.
The case of struggling to exclusively breastfeed a child is also not different to Yusta Msemwa, a mother of four. She is among the mothers in Buguruni area in Ilala District who are facing societal taboos and cultural beliefs, that children feel thirsty and that mother's milk might not be enough for the children and so they have to complement breast milk before the age of six months.
Veges Yunus, a mother of two residing in Kawe Dar es Salaam says few years before she got her first baby (Brown), she was well prepared to exclusively breastfeed her children for the first six months.
“But I failed to practice my goal due to work related challenges, despite pumping my breast milk and left them at home, my child didn’t get enough for the whole six months, I was working in a certain company here and due to work stresses I wasn’t unable to feed my baby well, I only managed to breastfeed him for only four months but the rest two months, I had to initiate another meal to make him get enough,” she says.
Veges also says that husbands are also rarely supportive; either at home or in the health facilities, due to their personal beliefs or to traditional beliefs and culture of the community.
From Hamida’s, Veges and Yusta’s experience, it shows that behind many mothers that do not properly breastfeed there is a lot of influence from grandmothers who normally advise them on child feeding traditions. This is due to poor knowledge among these women who are normally custodians of such traditions and customs.
A Pedestrian and Lactation Consultant from Aga Khan Hospital in Dar es Salaam, Dr Mariam Noorani said that breast milk is a baby’s first vaccine, the first and best protection they have against illness and disease with newborns, accounting for nearly half of all deaths of children under five, saying early breastfeeding can make the difference between life and death.
“With breast milk being the major medicine and protection to various baby diseases, we have the specialists to intensify our efforts so that many more Tanzanian children and their mothers benefit from optimal breastfeeding practices,” she noted.
Breast milk is a living fluid that has proteins and cells that fight illnesses and promote growth if the baby.
Why exclusive breastfeeding?
Dr Mariam says exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life has been shown to have numerous benefits for the baby including, reduced chance of getting diseases like ear infections and diarrhealdiseases.
“Other positive impacts include reduced chances of allergic problems like asthma and eczema, better brain development and higher intelligence, reduced risk of being overweight and obese, quicker recovery from common illnesses as well as faster development,” she says
She further adds that breastfed babies may sit, crawl, walk and talk early.
Dr Mariam says given that breastfeeding promotes cognitive development and reduces the burden of childhood and maternal illness, everyone working together to promote breastfeeding makes sense, not just for mother and baby, but also for the future of the Tanzanians.
She points out that the rate of malnutrition among children in the country remains a challenge due to ignorance about appropriate infant feeding, with two-thirds of deaths of under-five children blamed on improper feeding.
The expert acknowledges that if mothers would not follow the recommendations by health experts that babies should receive regular breastfeeding for their first six months or so, acute malnutrition and stunting cases may raise among local children.
During the commemoration of the World Breastfeeding in August this year, the then Minister for Health, Community Development, Gender, Elderly and Children, UmmyMwalimu said that statistics of breastfeeding for babies aged below two years in Tanzania show that 97 percent of them are breastfed by their mothers.
Ummy wanted employers in the country to promote a conducive environment for nursing mothers for them to continue breastfeeding at the workplace or give them ample time to go back home to breastfeed their children.
According to her, despite the country doing better in the breastfeeding area, there were some employers who are still reluctant in permitting their employees to breastfeed where she warned that that the government will take stern measures to those who will be reported denying their employees to nurse their children.
There is an urgent need for raising awareness among husbands/partners to breastfeeding mothers on the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. It is equally important to train female reproductive and child health (RCH) professionals who could counsel breastfeeding mothers. Nurses and midwives, in Tanzania’s patriarchal context, show that they do a much better job than doctors.
According to the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF)’s data, globally, 77 million newborns or 1 in 2 are not put to the breast within an hour of birth, depriving them of the essential nutrients, antibodies and skin-to- skin contact with their mother that protects them from disease and death.
In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, where under five mortality rates are the highest worldwide, early breastfeeding rates increased by just 10 percentage points since 2000 in East and Southern Africa but have remained unchanged in West and Central Africa.