World Breastfeeding Week 2021

Earlier this year, Tokyo 2020 Olympics organizers announced that, as part of COVID-19 precautions, there would be no in-person spectators and athletes’ families would not be able to accompany them to the games. After receiving pushback from breastfeeding athletes, the organizers reversed their decision in June and permitted athletes to bring their nursing children.

The organizers’ decision was an important one. But we need to do better to support people who are breastfeeding — and that starts with ensuring their voices are integral in policymaking, advocacy agendas, and research that directly affects them.

At the Olympics or not, supporting breastfeeding is a shared responsibility.  

And it’s the theme of this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, which is observed every year from Aug. 1–7. 

Everyone has a role in protecting and supporting breastfeeding. Whether you are supporting campaigns to limit the marketing of breastmilk substitutes or for paid maternity leave, sharing evidence-based information with families, offering to assist families with household chores or child care, or giving an encouraging word or smile to a breastfeeding parent, no action is too small. 

Recognizing our shared responsibility to protect breastfeeding, we acknowledge the importance of centering the voices of breastfeeding people. 

Many systemic and personal challenges prevent optimal breastfeeding.  

Unsupportive or unknowledgeable health care providers, confusing baby food marketing campaigns and misinformation about breastfeeding, separation caused by health systems or work, unsupportive family and friends…any or all of these can have a negative impact on breastfeeding, and are blamed in part for the stagnation of breastfeeding trends globally. 

As we grapple with positionality in global health and understanding our roles in maintaining or challenging oppressive systems that deny humanity, we recognize that we must do more to uplift the voices of breastfeeding people. Their absence from decision-making about breastfeeding advocacy, programs, and research can only reinforce low rates of breastfeeding. 

As global health professionals, we often find ourselves in meetings about breastfeeding support and advocacy that are dominated by people who are not breastfeeding, including men.  

There are, however, successful ways that the voices of breastfeeding people can be the center of the conversations and where men are active participants without dominating the discourse or decision-making.   

In Nigeria, Alive & Thrive and key partners support father breastfeeding champions working in communities to center voices of breastfeeding mothers. In Olode Apapa, for example, father champions hold conversations with breastfeeding mothers to listen to their experiences and challenges and then engage other men to promote breastfeeding through one-on-one conversations in town hall meetings. In communities where men are predominantly speakers at town hall meetings, father champions created opportunities for the voices of breastfeeding mothers to be heard thereby galvanizing support from traditional and religious leaders for exclusive breastfeeding.  

The need for maternity entitlement for breastfeeding working mothers is another example of supporting women who are ready to breastfeed while working to feed the family. As part of the Data for Decisions to Expand Nutrition Transformation, Results for Development (R4D) and stakeholders in Nigeria including Alive & Thrive created nutrition scorecards that hold Nigeria’s 36 governors accountable for their commitment to breastfeeding and nutrition. 

If global health practitioners, researchers, advocates, and policymakers are serious about sharing responsibility for protecting breastfeeding, then they need to clear space at the table for those who are breastfeeding. Those voices should direct advocacy efforts and contribute to program and research designs and interpretation. 

And the rest of us can protect breastfeeding by uplifting their voices. 

Acknowledgement: Olumide Falake, Alive&Thrive Nigeria created the Nigeria case study

Photo © Feed the Children/Wezzie Grace Kenan

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