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Advocates pursue breastfeeding protection for Malaysia’s women

© Courtesy of Cheah Yew Hew
Breastfeeding advocates such as Dr Safurah Jaafar and Siti Norjinah Moin are working hard to ensure that programs and services are in place to protect and promote breastfeeding for the benefit of children and women in Malaysia.

by Jeswan Kaur

KUALA LUMPUR, 31 July 2008 - Breastfeeding is a serious affair to Malaysian Breastfeeding Association founder and president, Siti Norjinah Moin, who religiously breastfed all her children. Three decades of hard work and the mother of five is far from pleased with the plummeting decline in breastfeeding practices in the country.

“When the association started out in 1974, it was tough educating people on the benefits of breastfeeding. Until 1981, it appeared that breastfeeding had reached a plateau with not enough doctors and nurses trained on this topic. Breastfeeding was not a priority to them,” says Siti Norjinah (59).

"Only 14.5 per cent babies in Malaysia were exclusively breastfed below six months in 2006."

Ministry of Health

The Ministry of Health, in response, introduced a National Breastfeeding Policy in 1993 which also followed the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative introduced by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Health Organisation (WHO) in 1991.

The Policy was revised 12 years later in accordance with the World Health Assembly Resolution which recommends exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life and continued up to two years with complementary foods in line with UNICEF and WHO’s Guidelines for Infant Feeding.

Breastfeeding on the decline in Malaysia

“Despite these initiatives, only 14.5 per cent babies were exclusively breastfed below six months in 2006,” laments the Ministry of Health’s Family Health Development Division Director Dr Safurah Jaafar. “In addition, only 19.3 per cent babies were exclusively breastfed below four months.”

Compared with the findings of the National Health and Morbidity Survey 2 (1996), there was a significant decline of 9.7 % in the prevalence of exclusive breastfeeding below four months and a concurrent rise in the prevalence of babies who were predominantly breastfed but given additional water.

“Analysis of the breastfeeding pattern showed generally that exclusive breastfeeding rates were high in the first two months but dropped rapidly after the age of two to three months,” adds Dr Safurah.
“It was also found after the age of two months, more than half of the breastfed babies were supplemented with infant formula and given other foods like commercial baby foods or home-cooked baby food while 20 percent of breastfed infants were supplemented with plain water”.

Myths and lack of support for working women 

Dr Safurah blames cultural beliefs, myths and ignorance for the country’s poor breastfeeding performance.

“The myth that breastfed babies need water in addition to breast milk are wide spread in the country. Lack of knowledge and skill of mothers on when to start complementary food and how to maintain breastfeeding are other prohibitive factors,” explains Dr. Safurah. “Complementary food, including water, should ONLY be introduced after the age of six months”.

Other factors according to Dr. Safurah are the lack of benefits and facilities to promote and facilitate breastfeeding practices amongst women who also make up some half of the country’s working population. These include the absence of longer maternity leave, the lack of flexible working hours and missing childcare centres at work places.

Overcoming problems

“The Ministry hopes to initiate a multi-agency task force to develop strategies to improve breastfeeding in Malaysia. It includes reinforcing the importance of breastfeeding by ensuring longer maternity leave and availability of breastfeeding facilities in public areas and work places,” affirms Dr. Safurah.

While embracing the Government’s commitment to promote and protect breastfeeding for children and women, Siti Norjinah remains somewhat worried about the level of commitment from employers.

“In 1983 I started a breastfeeding program for working mothers.  When we started our Maternity Protection Campaign in 2000, the Federation of Employers boycotted our forum as they feared we would demand for more maternity leave. I was asking for 120 days of maternity leave,” explains Siti Norjinah.

”I worry the lack of support from employers will force working mothers to resort to formula milk,” adds the passionate breastfeeding advocate.

“In conjunction with the World Breastfeeding Week in August, I am putting the maternity program on the agenda. I truly hope the Government will show its support so we can ensure breastfeeding success for all of Malaysia’s children!” 
Edited by Indra Nadchatram





World Breastfeeding Week 2008

      Mother Support:
        Going for Gold

     1 – 7 August 2008

Press Release

UNICEF Malaysia WBW '08 Activities 

Innocenti Breastfeeding Communication Package

Real Lives: Malaysia Breastfeeding


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