and why this source of wealth remains untapped in Curaçao
Our era is the most exciting one to raise a child. Scientific discoveries in the field of child development happen on the regular and that information is readily available to all who seek it. One of the areas that is being increasingly researched and published about is human milk, its composition and its many benefits. UNICEF summarizes the many benefits of breastfeeding best, stating on their website that breastfeeding saves lives, improves health and cuts costs in every country worldwide. As a society, we are obsessed with creating wealth and opportunity for people on our island. So, why does this obvious source of wealth remain untapped in Curaçao?
Benefits of breastfeeding
Breastmilk has earned the name Miracle Milk for good reasons. It protects mother and child against a wide range of illnesses (such as sudden infant death syndrome and cancer) and it promotes infant and maternal mental health by supporting the mother-child bond. However, the benefits reach beyond mother and baby. A slight increase in breastfeeding rates has been linked to significant societal health care cost savings as it is one of the most effective preventative measures against diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer and many child illnesses. It’s better for the environment, because it requires no additional natural resources and produces no waste for the landfills. It has been aptly described as a natural safety net against the worse effects of poverty by James P. Grant (director of UNICEF 1980 – 1995) by giving a child born in poverty “a fairer start in life.” The cost savings of not having to purchase formula or other food for the first six months cannot be underestimated. Reduced absenteeism at work due to caring for ill children not only means parents tend to keep their jobs longer, but it translates into significant cost savings and increased productivity for businesses. So, how many parents in Curaçao are feeding their child this liquid gold?
Some booby stats
Fundashon Lechi di Mama Kòrsou promotes a better understanding of breastfeeding as an important element in the healthy development of the baby and mother through education as well as encouragement. In an interview with volunteers Zarja Rojer (chairman) and Charlene Croes (secretary), we learn that a shocking 5% of infants (2015) in Curaçao are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives. About 90% of new mothers intend and do breastfeed their child. About 45% of those babies are exclusively breastfed and a whopping 34% receive formula on the side.
The amount of breastfed babies plummets after three weeks to about 23%. Around two months there is another significant drop in the percentage of breastfed children and only about 16% of babies are still breastfed. That coincides with the moment that most new mothers prepare to return to work. By 3.5 months only 11% still receive breastmilk and by six months only 5% of children are breastfed. Beyond that only a handful of children receive the many benefits of breastfeeding.
A study on the island in 2013 by Volksgezondheid Instituut Curaçao (VIC) revealed that one in two adults is overweight or is obese and that our women have the highest rate of obesity in the region. There is a direct link between obesity and many other diseases, such as diabetes, which is also rampant on the island. Furthermore, statistics suggest the poverty line has steadily increased over the past decade. The poverty line is the smallest amount of money a person or a family needs to live on. People who are below this line are classified as poor. A recent report by VIC suggests that a staggering 25% of our population lives below the poverty line.
The scientific evidence linking breastfeeding and a decrease in many of the health and social issues we are dealing with in Curaçao is overwhelming. So, why are so many children denied the Miracle Milk?
Unintentionally closing the tap and widening the gap
According to Fundashon Lechi di Mama Kòrsou the story is more complicated than that. Rojer believes that all parents want the best for their children, however many are misinformed, and they lack support. “Almost 90% of [new mothers intend and] do breastfeed. However, at a certain point when the infant starts feeding more frequently around 3 weeks [this percentage] plummets significantly,” says Rojer. It’s around the three-week mark new mothers might be finding that the demands of breastfeeding are taking their toll and they start questioning whether they can keep it up. Croes: “The issue of breastfeeding is considered a woman’s issue that doesn’t concern the father. Many men don’t feel like that, but they are being pushed into accepting that role.” Croes continues to emphasize the importance of a father’s role in a mother accomplishing her breastfeeding roles. “The feeding part must be done by the mother; however, the father can support with everything else.” During this very vulnerable time, many well-intentioned, but misinformed relatives or friends will suggest introducing formula.
There are other contributing factors as well. “Formula is readily available, and many mothers keep a tin of formula in the pantry just in case,” says Rojer. In fact, many medical professionals advise expecting mothers to purchase a tin of formula just in case breastfeeding fails and in the hospitals many nurses give the newborns formula without consulting the parents. “Some medical professionals don’t receive any information about breastfeeding in their training, while they do get training on the importance of educating parents on how to prepare formula,” says Rojer. “The medical professional also tends to focus on his or her area of expertise and is reluctant to communicate with other professionals,” she says, suggesting that a typical gynecologist is very unlikely to refer an expecting mother to a lactation specialist. In fact, only some gynecologists allow skin-to-skin contact right after birth, while that is the first step towards successful breastfeeding.
Around the 6 weeks milestone, there is an additional cause for decreased breastfeeding rates among the poorest of families on the island. The so-called “melkbriefjes” cover the cost of formula for children between the age of 6 weeks and 12 months for low income families and many families will insist on receiving these benefits, without realizing their long-term implications. Research suggests that there is a direct link between poverty and breastfeeding and Rojer laments the current government policy. However, blaming the companies that produce formula would be too simple. “Breastfeeding hasn’t always been the norm. We have a rich tradition of well to do families that hire yaya’s to breastfeed their children. Formula wasn’t available back then,” Rojer points out.
Reaping the benefits of breastfeeding
According to Croes, increasing the percentage of breastfed children can only be accomplished if several stakeholders are made aware of the benefits of breastmilk. She refers to medical professionals, the general public and government officials. Rojer: “It’s something that has to be normalized for children as well. Breastfeeding is still a taboo at school. You don’t generally discuss breasts and a woman’s body in front of children.” In addition, our society is hyper-sexualized, and women are pressured into having a certain type of body that includes a full, round bosom.
Fundashon Lechi di Mama Kòrsou has several ongoing projects that aim to increase the number of children that are breastfed exclusively up to six months. They lobby for change in government policy and legislation and they actively contribute to closing the education gap that many medical professionals have. “We also promote the Siman di Lechi di Pechu, which coincides with Nutrition Week. Breastmilk is the best source of nutrition for an infant,” Rojer explains. “We also encourage mothers to continue to breastfeed by awarding certificates to those who have reached the 6 months milestone. If they continue beyond that, they are eligible for a Booby Award,” says Croes. Fundashon Lechi di Mama Kòrsou also supports a group of mothers who gather every three months to support each other. “There is so much more we can do; however, lack of volunteers and funding makes it hard for us to be everywhere at once,” admits Rojer. There are some encouraging developments though, such as the new dedicated room for mothers with children in the NICU where they have access to a breast pump. “We’ve received so many great feedbacks on the Siman di lechi di Pechu and we do make a difference. So, we are hopeful,” Rojer says.
Fundashon Lechi di Mama Kòrsou celebrates Siman di lechi di Pechu from October 14th through October 19th, 2018. Help them celebrate by spreading the word and supporting breastfeeding mothers in your community.