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Mama, we need to empower each other


I love being a La Leche League leader.

I love helping new mothers, I love connecting with strangers over the fact that we breastfeed or want to breastfeed. The volunteer role feels incredibly fulfilling and rewarding, particularly when I see the mothers I speak to, leave with a heightened sense of confidence and empowerment.

But then, something niggled at my mind. Was it The Guardian article that profiled vulnerable families living in a Filipino slum who were targeted by formula companies, or was it the confronting realization that all the women I reach through my work at LLL are often privileged, financially and socially?

I felt I could do more, that I was not reaching women who might be most in need of help.

I had read in an article that some vulnerable families in the Philippines spend upward of 75% of their household income on breast milk substitutes. Seventy-five percent! Families forwent food for adults in order to provide formula for their babies. The water used to prepare formula was not always clean, and infants suffered from gastrointestinal diseases.

Our Filipina caregiver explained how she did not successfully breastfeed, though she wanted to. The “advice” she was given about what breastfeeding mothers should or should not do; from not feeding if she hadn’t eaten well, to not feeding if she was feeling tired, was mystifying. There were financial challenges too - how could a single mother working a low-wage job, provide for her babies?

Unable to pack my bags for the poorest parts of Manila or Jakarta or Colombo, I wanted to find a solution closer to home.

Heather Lin featured in the South China Morning Post

Thus, a path appeared...and it was Pathfinders (guilty of being punny).

Pathfinders is a charity that serves pregnant migrant workers, many of which are foreign domestic “helpers” - the vital but often unrecognised workforce whose labour enables cities such as Hong Kong and Singapore to run.

Pathfinders provides these women with health care, case management, legal support, and other valuable and necessary services. Some of their clients have been unlawfully fired due to their pregnancy, and thus lose access to public health services in Hong Kong.

I collaborated with Pathfinders in my capacity as a La Leche League leader to help deliver their breastfeeding class. I worked with a staff member who translated my words into Bahasa Indonesian, and addressed seven mothers on the value of breastfeeding.

We addressed common myths about what to do or not to do when breastfeeding. We informed them about supply and demand, as this concept was often poorly understood by many mothers. We spoke about the risks of using formula, and how this could negatively impact mother’s milk supply.

It was important to provide information and education that was freely available, as many vulnerable mothers otherwise would simply not get this knowledge, or would get incorrect knowledge.

Empowering vulnerable mothers with accurate information about breastfeeding is crucial to individual and public health.

Photo Credit: Food Policy Snapshot Series

It is nothing short of a disgrace that formula companies, to this day, ply medical professionals with benefits for promoting their brand, and heckle mothers with advertisement that is intentionally presented as information.

The WHO code for Marketing Infant Formula exists, but is often not enforced in poor countries with sparse regulation. Even in Hong Kong, the code is presented as more of a suggestion than a policy that must be followed for fear of penalty. City buses trundle past with giant advertisements that would not be permitted in other countries such as Canada.

These women - and their families back home - deserve to know formula feeding can carry risks: In a slum where clean water might be difficult to come by, let alone money to afford formula (potentially leading to desperate parents watering it down to make it last longer), it is clear breastfeeding is the optimal solution for mother and baby, unless there are specific medical reasons for substitutes to be used.

Mother’s body is a literal milk factory, flowing out litres of complex, perfect nutrition for her baby, without requiring any money, preparation or sterilisation. The things she does require, however, are education, information and support.

The more resources individuals, governments and charities can pour into supporting breastfeeding, the better the world will be, starting with the most vulnerable: an infant born into poverty.

Photo Credit: Pathfinders

Heather Lin is a Pathfinders volunteer and guest speaker, her views do not represent those of Pathfinders. 

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