6 August 2019

Breastfeeding is a father’s responsibility

Walking into a local clinic in Malawi, you will be faced with images calling for men to take a more active role in children and mother’s health. Some of the messages boldly challenge what we consider to be normal, explicitly stating that “Exclusive breastfeeding is a husband’s responsibility.”

Breast milk contains nutrients that are essential for a child’s growth and development. In rural areas where women have little money and limited access to clean water to prepare formula, breast milk is a cheap and safe option. But it is also by far the better option. The World Health Organisation estimates that around 220,000 children could be saved every year with exclusive breastfeeding. Yet less than half of children under six months are exclusively breastfed.

Because exclusive breastfeeding is often misunderstood, it is important to define what it really means. Exclusive breastfeeding, means that the infant receives only breast milk with no other liquids, food – or even water – except for oral rehydration solution, or drops/syrups of vitamins, minerals or medicine.

So what do men have to do with it?

Breastfeeding is not only time consuming, but also requires a lot of physical energy. Stress, fatigue and anxiety can reduce the amount of milk a woman produces. In both rural and urban areas, women are often overburdened with family responsibilities like cooking and cleaning. For women employed outside the home, there is the added stress and pressure on their time which requires additional support in taking care of the new addition. Studies show that when men have information on exclusive breastfeeding, they can support women by helping with housework, looking after children and even providing the much needed continuous emotional and physical support as a skilled assistant or a partner.

Society, tradition and culture can prevent men from providing this support. Although times are changing, and more men are taking up family responsibilities – a cooking dad is still not considered the norm. Government policies and laws worsen men’s ability to support.

How do we reconcile this?

University of Pretoria (South Africa), a member institution of the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI), conducted a study of men’s involvement in maternal and child nutrition in rural Central Malawi with 44 men and women and 26 informants. Using focus group discussions and in-depth interviews, they found that there are five reasons that men become involved in maternal and child nutrition. These include: pride in looking after their families, recognition of the impact of their involvement, advocacy by traditional leaders and NGOs, incentives and disincentives, and encouragement from male champions. Men can and are taking an active role in cooking, cleaning and looking after children. However, policy-makers continue to place emphasis on women only, reinforcing the idea that only women can be involved in nutrition. Working with traditional leaders is essential to overcome cultural beliefs concerning the different roles men and women play. When involving men, caution needs to be taken to ensure that women are not undermined.

Some men might be reluctant to become involved in “women’s work,” but legislation and policy cannot be implemented in isolation. Advocacy using male role models is also needed. Imagine a famous soccer player or a political leader taking an active role in the first year of their child’s life. What kind of message would this send to other men throughout the country?

Breastfeeding is a shared responsibility between parents. Children’s health and well-being could be improved by addressing gender inequalities. Our leaders need to support both parents to play an active role in children’s lives.

Dr Elizabeth Mkandawire is the Coordinator for the United Nations Academic Impact SDG Hub for Goal 2: Zero Hunger at the University of Pretoria. Her research focuses on gender and food security and nutrition policy.

Dr Nokuthula Vilakazi is a Program Coordinator at Future Africa, University of Pretoria. Her research focuses on food security and nutrition.