A few days ago, Hemlata, a Nurse Mentor at The Antara Foundation (TAF), met Manoj, 25, and his wife Divya, 23, at a hospital in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhindwara district. The young couple had welcomed their baby girl less than 24 hours earlier. Manoj, as elated as he was, stood at a distance while the nurse mentor helped his wife properly nurse the child. Manoj’s inquisitive eyes peered at his little family, hoping to understand his participation as a father.
On observing this, Hemlata invited the husband in and gently guided him on how he could help and support his wife. As part of TAF’s nurse mentoring intervention, we enhance ill-equipped labour rooms and improve the knowledge and skills of delivery nurses. Apart from this, TAF nurse mentors, along with frontline health workers, also help in counselling families on antenatal care.
Hemlata advised the husband on how to hold the baby and the importance of creating a calm environment for his wife. She explained to him the potential health risks that a new mother and child can face. For the first time in months, Manoj felt included, responsible, and eager to contribute to his wife and child’s health. Unfortunately, this is the kind of support and equal access that men seldom receive.
The word breastfeeding often conjures an image of a mother coddling her infant in her arms. An act so pure and innocent but essential in every way. The Antara Foundation has been working in Madhya Pradesh for a while now, and every time we discuss breastfeeding with young mothers, we emphasise its important role in a mother and her child’s well-being.
When a baby begins to suckle, the let-down reflex releases oxytocin — the love hormone — that helps reinforce what many mothers are known to describe as the joy of motherhood. Breast milk is perfect. It has the right amount of nutrients for the child and protects the baby against illnesses.
There is ample evidence suggesting the importance of exclusive breastfeeding (EB), yet, the uptake of EB remains rather low in many parts of India, particularly Madhya Pradesh (only 64% of children under five years are exclusively breastfed during the first six months of life). Further, EB is often not practised in parts of the country where there is a strong belief that the infant must be fed water, honey, or other forms of liquids, which can be detrimental. Practices, including strong psycho-social support from family members, particularly partners, are crucial.
When we probe into the reasons behind the lower uptake of breastfeeding, the reasons range anywhere from not having enough time to feed to thinking that formula milk is better. But broadly, the barriers to breastfeeding can be categorised into two types — lack of awareness and lack of agency to exercise exclusive breastfeeding. Information campaigns can help with the lack of awareness. In my experience, an extremely underutilised resource — fathers need to be given agency to contribute to mother and child’s health during EB.
Male partners, who are often alienated, hold the key to increasing exclusive breastfeeding. Even though fathers are the discernible half of parenthood, they remain silent spectators in the background as mothers, and other women in the family carry out all the work during breastfeeding.
It is important for fathers to be equal participants and treat their infants as a shared responsibility. They can help provide a safe, comfortable, and stress-free environment for women while feeding. Further, they can help with acts of child-care while mothers rest between feedings, particularly as stress-induced post-partum depression rises amongst women. This includes taking care of older children, massaging the lactating mother to induce milk flow, ensuring a balanced diet, and even preventing malpractices that affect infants from taking place. Further, to reduce the probability of early weaning, fathers can physically and emotionally support their partners when they face difficulties while feeding.
Empirical evidence suggests that men can contribute to improving rates of exclusive breastfeeding. Health practitioners play a very important role in including men in conversations about breastfeeding. To do so, we must first create a non-judgemental and safe space for male partners to participate.
Following this, guiding and counselling fathers to understand their role is essential. Further, we need to strengthen systems and processes to sustain these spaces for parents to exercise joint decision-making. Only then can we create the right environment for parents to work together to ensure healthy parenthood and a bright start to their child’s life.
There has been a growing realisation globally that unilateral interventions that focus solely on women and improving their knowledge and practices are not enough. This is particularly important since there exists a disproportionate distribution of power within our communities. As a result of which, the majority of the decision-making power lies amongst individuals other than the women themselves, thereby deprioritising their health and needs.
By working along with men to change this stoic system, we would be ensuring that women in the remotest communities would be able to access basic health services and exercise their agency.
Prerna Gopal is the district lead at The Antara Foundation,
Featured image source: Healthline