Recently, a dedicated bench was set up on the Grote Markt in Kortrijk, West Flanders, Belgium to normalise breastfeeding in public.
The taboo around this most natural of acts, however continues to be all-pervasive, globally. The lack of safe spaces for new mothers is an issue that is seldom mainstreamed.
For mothers who are socially and economically marginalised, who work perhaps on construction sites, on farms, are daily wage workers or run roadside stalls, where is the provision to feed their babies in privacy?
"As a new mom, I am more aware than ever before of the importance and challenges of breastfeeding."
I identify with every mother who wants to feed her hungry baby in a public space but feels uncomfortable just because as a society, we make everything about optics and not meaning and purpose.
We glorify motherhood but squirm at the sight of a mom breastfeeding her baby.
Our urban workplaces are only now beginning to realise the need to create designated spaces where working moms can comfortably nurse but by and large, mothers are left to their own devices to cope with the challenges of breastfeeding.
Can legislation and empathetic laws bring about a change? Well, Belgium has protected breastfeeding in public by law.
European Union laws also specify that discrimination against nursing moms is illegal.
What we need in India is however attitudinal change and systematic strategies at all levels to break taboos and stigmas around the sight of a lactating mom feeding her infant.
"We also need to explore why the sight of breastfeeding mothers triggers so much debate."
And why the idea of a woman’s agency over her own body is so hard to comprehend, while objectifying and even violating it with words and actions is commonplace.
There are so many instances of nursing moms being targeted including an instance in 2018 when a lactating mother was told at a mall in Kolkata by authorities that what she was doing was a "home chore."
This is how the campaign, #freedomtonurse was born and it is about envisioning and working towards a society where nursing moms have, yes, the freedom to mother their children. That is not asking for too much, is it?
We live however in a society where infrastructural omissions make nursing hard and lactation rooms are considered inessential in the scheme of things.
The shame and embarrassment associated with breastfeeding are on the other hand, ever present.
The fact that the organisers of the ongoing Olympics in Tokyo made an exception for breastfeeding athletes by allowing them to bring their babies (with partners or caretakers) to the games is a huge step towards taking this important conversation forward.
But this news has no particular relevance for women in rural India who have inadequate access to even basic information about reproductive and maternal health.
The pandemic has further worsened their financial, mental and physical health.
I recently read that rural India has recorded a drop in babies being breastfed within an hour of birth, even though the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that all mothers be supported to initiate breastfeeding as soon as possible after birth, ideally within the first hour after delivery.
This ensures that the infant receives the nutrient rich colostrum, or “first milk”.
WHO also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a baby’s life for better growth, health and immunity and warns that babies who are not breastfed are six to 10 times more likely to die in the first few months.
"But how many rural mothers have this information? How many can battle prevailing misconceptions in order to feed their babies immediately after childbirth?"
The stigma around breastfeeding also complicates matters further. Phase-1 data of the National Family Health Survey-5, has shown a decline in under-3 kids breastfed within an hour of birth.
India also has one of the highest rates of malnutrition and infant mortality.
It goes without saying that we need information interventions and sensitisation drives to underscore the importance of breastfeeding. Families and communities must be educated to provide new moms with all the support they need.
And we must make it possible for all underserved mothers to access information about proper feeding techniques and hygiene. All mothers have the right to adequate nutrition, privacy, psychological support and safe spaces.
And it all begins, as I said before, with attitudinal change. We must normalise, respect and support breastfeeding because there is nothing more sacred than a mother’s right to nourish her baby.
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