COVID-19: A pandemic through the eyes of a first-time mum
The Employment Act 2007 dictates that a female employee is entitled to a three-month maternity leave with a full pay, any additional leave days can be discussed between an employer and employee. “Maternity leave may be extended with the consent of the employer, by taking sick leave or by taking, with the consent of the employer, annual leave, compassionate leave or other leave entitlements,” the act further states.
Some mothers begin introducing their children to weaning food when their three months leave nears its end. However, as labour laws have seen many mums wean their babies before or when they resume work, the maternal health guidelines by the World Health Organization (WHO) advocates for six months of exclusive breastfeeding.
It recommends that “children initiate breastfeeding within the first hour of birth and be exclusively breastfed for the first 6 months of life – meaning no other foods or liquids are provided, including water.” This breast milk, WHO says, should “be given to infants on demand – that is as often as the child wants, day and night. No bottles, teats or pacifiers should be used.”
For working mums, this becomes nearly impossible after the lapse of their three months-leave. Those who continue with daytime breastfeeding are left with options of expressing the milk for the baby to take using bottles, or might have to take breaks between work to breastfeed. In this case, early weaning has become a run-to solution for a number of mums who have to work and take care of their babies.
The Covid game changer for mums
From the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent lock down, a number of companies released their employees to work from home so as to avoid frequent movements that would lead to the spread of the disease. As a result, the idea of working from home was born, where employees would now perform their tasks at the comfort of their living rooms, surrounded by family.
This became a game changer for mothers with infants, as they could now work at home, where they can meet career obligations and also be physically available for their children.
In November 16, 2019, Jane, a secondary school teacher from Kiambu County gave birth to her first-born child. Months later, when her maternity leave was just about to end, former President Uhuru Kenyatta ordered the closure of schools countrywide on March 15, 2020, to stop the spread of COVID-19.
Like other teachers, Jane had to stay at home, where she exclusively breastfed her daughter for six months and would attend to her fully.
Another case is that of Doreen, a banker based in Nairobi, who gave birth to her first child on June 11, 2020. This was at the height of the Covid-19 pandemic, where she worked from home. Doreen says she exclusively breastfed her baby for six months, and started weaning immediately after this period. She continued to work from home until December 2021, when her baby was one and a half years old.
Being a first-time mum, Doreen says being available for her child made her have a strong bond with the infant. “The baby grows as you bond with them more, they learn skills faster, milestones are reached quicker,” she says, adding that she was close to her baby, and only began delegating some responsibilities to a nanny when the infant was 6 months old.
For Brenda, a first-time mum who works for Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO) in Nairobi, being at home with her son helped her navigate the motherhood journey. The finance officer gave birth to her first-born son in November 2021, and had been working from home all through her pregnancy period. She exclusively breastfed her baby for six months, and was close to him all along, where she sought the help of a nanny when the infant was one year old.
“I had more time to take care of the baby since there was no transit to work. I also had peace of mind as the baby was always in the next room. Also, I could easily monitor his progress and be alerted if there was an issue, which I could find ways to solve immediately,” Brenda says. According to the mother of one, she feels emotionally stable and is confident that she has raised her baby the best way she could.
For Jane, who now has a second child, she is filled with uncertainties on how she will continue with exclusive breastfeeding this time round when she returns to class after her maternity leave ends in May 2023. “I cannot compare the situation now with raising my first born during Covid,” she says.
Importance of mother-child relationship and exclusive breastfeeding
WHO recommends exclusive breastfeeding since breast milk is safe for a child and contains antibodies which help protect against many common childhood illnesses. Children who breastfeed exclusively for six months have been found to be less susceptible to diseases such as obesity and are also more intelligent.
Cecilia Kireria, a Pediatrician at the Nyambene sub-county hospital in Meru County acknowledges that breastfeeding has a positive impact on mother and child relationship.
“One of the advantages of breastfeeding, as compared to other feeding is the bonding between mother and baby. The more they spend time together, there is a success of longer breastfeeding. The mum also has a stronger relationship with the baby,” she says.
Cecilia adds that when a breastfeeding mother is not fully available at home, the feeding intervals will not be consistent, hence hindering on-demand breastfeeding.
Organizations supporting breastfeeding mums
Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, a number of organizations had strategies to support breastfeeding mothers beyond the three months leave stipulated in labour laws.
For instance, Safaricom PLC gives female employees a maternity leave allowance of four months and offers flexible working hours for mums six months upon return to work.
At NCBA bank, Doreen says breastfeeding mothers are allowed to report to work two hours late, or leave two hours earlier than the rest of the staff upon work. Other organizations have day care centres where parents can leave their children, and walk in to breastfeed them amid work breaks.
Most organizations have also set a room aside for mothers, where they can walk in at any time of the day to express milk for their babies, or even breastfeed them in there. The mothers’ rooms are equipped with a washing area, where mums thoroughly wash their hands and bottles before sitting comfortably to express milk, and store it inside a fridge.
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