Isabel Crowley
View from the Top

Breaking Breastfeeding Myths in Mexico

Tue, 09/06/2016 - 13:53

Q: What has UNICEF achieved through its breastfeeding program in Mexico?

A: We have done many things. In Mexico only 14 percent of mothers exclusively breastfeed for six months, which is the lowest rate in Latin America. We could see the negative impact on the health of children in terms of obesity and other problems and so this would be a way to reduce government cost in the medium and long term and spread the benefits for breastfeeding for mothers and children. For breastfeeding mothers there is less incidence of cervical and breast cancer, they lose weight more rapidly and are less prone to being depressed. For children it is extremely important because breastmilk adapts to the age of the child and the first milk that the mother gives is like a vaccination, it has all a newborn child needs. They will be healthier and they will not get as sick. This is why we are working hard to change the status quo so children are not negatively impacted. Over the last 20 years women have been increasingly incorporating themselves into the workforce. Over 50 percent more are working now than in the past but laws have not changed to help them breastfeed. We ran a campaign with TV Azteca to promote breastfeeding. We are trying to educate and break the myths about breastfeeding.

Policy improvements have been made, women no longer need to take six weeks pregnancy leave before having their baby. This does not have an additional cost to the employer but is beneficial to the mother. Other simple solutions that make huge differences would be to give mothers a place to breastfeed and store their milk. We are also working on increasing maternity leave. We will have an active campaign during International Breastfeeding Week to help the government and the general population realize the importance of breastfeeding and increase the percentage of mothers exclusively breastfeeding in the first six months.

Baby-friendly hospitals are another strategy of the government, discontinued many years ago but starting again. The hospitals must comply with certain regulations to get the certification. These include ensuring the mother is with the baby after birth and that breastfeeding is initiated immediately. What we recommend doesn’t cost very much. The State of Mexico is making great savings by switching from powdered milk to encouraging mothers to breastfeed. We also have to ensure that there is a code for breastmilk substitute for the industry to adhere to and comply with, but it is a big business and they have not been adhering to this. This is something the government must enforce. There are a lot of interests involved but the constitution tells us that the best interest of the child should override any other concerns. Last year there was a gathering of the three main groups that deal with children’s health: the Mexican Obstetrician and Gynecologist Federation, the Mexican Pediatrics Association and the Mexican Confederation of Pediatrics. It was the first time they worked together and they signed a historical agreement to increase breastfeeding in the country.

It is very important to create awareness. At first we were not getting any traction so we created a viral video about a woman breastfeeding in a park arrested for showing her breast. We wanted the public to start talking about it. An important task of UNICEF is to create awareness and then the environment for public policy to change. We feel that in the last 2 1/2 years we have done a lot but it will only be successful when we start seeing the results for children.

Q: What do you attribute to the drop of breastfeeding rates in indigenous communities?

A: Breastmilk is the best. It comes with the right nutrients, at the best temperature and it’s free. It was a major human rights problem when we decided that powdered milk is better than breastmilk, which is precisely why the government should be implementing health codes for tinned milk and promoting breastfeeding. Of course tinned milk is a good option for mothers unable to breastfeed but it should be the last resort instead of the first. It is difficult to compete against the industry, especially when they invest about the same amount to advertise their tinned milk in a day that we invest to promote breastfeeding in the whole year. Campaigns by the government and support from hospitals will help educate and raise breastfeeding rates.