It’s my job to know about early childhood development and the impact of nutrition on the first 1000 days of a child’s life, but I was surprised how much I learned when I had my first child. Here are a few lessons from my pregnancy and first months of parenthood that have added depth and clarity to my work advocating on nutrition:
- It takes a village. Before the baby, I considered breastfeeding to be a personal act. I soon learned that it requires a lot of support. Studies on support for breastfeeding mothers found that support from professionals such as doctors, nurses, and lactation consultants or from friends and family increased how long mothers breastfed overall and exclusively. I was fortunate to have both. The hospital where I gave birth and our pediatrician’s office both had lactation consultants to provide hands-on support in the critical early days when I was full of questions. My friends, who had babies around the same time, also offered advice from their doctors and extended support system. Most importantly, I had the support of my mother who shared her experiences and the wisdom of her mother and aunts.
Researchers are looking with fresh eyes at the benefits of intergenerational support for new mothers and finding that what may seem like instinct is actually family support. My community continues to keep me going as I tackle pumping in the office, battle with bottle feeding and introduce solid foods.
- Supporting exclusive breastfeeding can place undue burden on women. Exclusive breastfeeding rates, globally, hover around 38 percent, well below the World Health Assembly target of 50 percent by 2025. For mothers to exclusively breastfeed for the recommended six months, paid leave for at least that period is essential. Even among OECD countries, the average duration of paid maternity leave is 18 weeks with the U.S. not mandating any.
The demands of working, caring for other children or family members, medical issues, or changes in diet can make breastfeeding exclusively for six months a massive burden. Within my community, there is growing awareness that while exclusive breastfeeding is ideal, the stress mothers take on may counteract the benefits. In some circumstances, infant formula can be an alternate option. But, for many women around the world—where clean water is not accessible or consistently available—formula feeding is neither a safe nor healthy option. Especially in those cases, women must be supported with the time and space to breastfeed. Fathers must also play a greater role in the care and development of a child; extending paid parental leave to fathers is part of ensuring support for mothers (but not a silver bullet!). We must continue to improve the experience of breastfeeding women—whether in offices, fields and factories, or their own homes.
- It’s about more than healthcare access. For 20 million infants worldwide, low birthweight—babies born weighing less than five pounds, eight ounces—is associated with serious health risks. Besides pre-term birth, common causes of low birthweight are related indicators of poverty: poor maternal nutrition and health during pregnancy and over a woman’s lifetime. In the U.S., more attention is being focused on the impact that racial discrimination, independent of economic status and educational attainment, can contribute to adverse birth outcomes such as low birthweight. This recent coverage in ProPublica and NPR about how different maternal care experiences are depending on race broke my heart. It opened my eyes to the fact that this is not only an issue about health coverage but also about how the healthcare system interacts with women from minority communities.
- It’s a window into the future. I’m amazed at the volume of reading material emphasizing how critical the first months and years are for future development. Parents understand that investing in resources like toys, quality time, and healthy food pays off in the long run. Governments must also understand that investing money, human resource capacity, and infrastructure to make sure that all children thrive—regardless of socio-economic strata, race, or community—pays off for nations and their economies as well.
Nandini Pillai is ACTION’s advocacy and impact manager and nutrition lead.