September 2019 – 2nd Regional Breastfeeding Conference, Cyberjaya

By Far’ain Jaafar, BMSG EXCO Member & Counsellor
Additional Reporting by Nabila Hanim, BMSG Staff

Every year, BMSG sends representatives to attend conferences and gatherings for breastfeeding advocates. This year, three of our BMSG EXCO members attended the Regional Breastfeeding Conference held at Cyberjaya in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Read on to find out from Far’ain Jaafar, BMSG EXCO Secretary and volunteer breastfeeding counsellor, what went on during the conference and what were some of the valuable takeaways and lessons which she had found useful and meaningful for the breastfeeding scene in Singapore.

Representing BMSG

I was fortunate to represent Singapore at the recent 2nd Regional Breastfeeding Conference in August this year, which was held at Cyberjaya in Malaysia. Together with BMSG President Khatim Hamidon and my fellow EXCO member, Ellen Nepilly, our team was one among a few individuals and groups who represented Singapore at the conference.

BMSG representatives with renowned breastfeeding advocate Annelies Allain, founder of IBFAN. From left: Ellen Nepilly, Khatim Hamidon, Annelies Allain & Far’ain Jaafar. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]u

The Regional Breastfeeding Conference is an initiative organised by the Malaysian Breastfeeding Association in collaboration with IBFAN (also known as the International Baby Foods Action Network) SEA. It brings together all who are interested in the business of breastfeeding; healthcare professionals, individuals who work in the area of lactation, personnels in maternity and paediatric care, academic researchers, advocates and representatives of breastfeeding support organisations, lactation counsellors, as well as individuals who run breastfeeding-related organisations.

“The 2nd Regional Conference on Breastfeeding is indispensable for professionals working in the area of breastfeeding and human lactation. A true meeting of the minds that will convey new knowledge, teach crucial skills, and connect to a supportive caring community.”

The conference was structured for actionable topics which had been discussed and worked on during the pre-conference segment. The whole conference was hands-on and provided a lot of time for discussion and learning between experts and attendees from countries all over the world. I believe it was programmed in such a way for all delegates to collaborate and learn from one another.

BMSG had intended to send representatives in the hopes of continuing to forge ties with our regional breastfeeding representatives and also to learn from best practices. In working with mothers, it means a lot to us to be able to learn as best as possible about the multi-faceted issues that are related to breastfeeding in order to provide mothers, fathers and families.

The conference was an overwhelmingly valuable opportunity, where it saw breastfeeding powerhouses all in one place: from researchers, advocates, to changemakers, there was simply so much to learn. The above is a slide from Dr Julie Smith, a researcher who specialises in studying breastfeeding and how it shapes maternal policies. [Credits: Khatim Hamidon]

Learning From the Experts

Prior to attending the conference, my exposure to breastfeeding was limited to what I had learnt during my training to become a breastfeeding counsellor and trainer, as well as being a breastfeeding mother myself. However, throughout the conference, I had chanced upon many learning points that helped me think about the ways to raise the breastfeeding profile in Singapore.

Below are the names of some of the presenters of plenary sessions that I had attended at the conference, with the pointers that I found enlightening. These had helped me rethink breastfeeding support:

  • Women are constantly plagued with worries about not having any/enough milk but it is actually untrue: “The global myth of all women: no milk, little milk, not enough milk.” – Ines Fernandez. Ines is a breastfeeding advocate from the Philippines who goes to rural areas to teach women about breastfeeding. She is also a key figure who is known to educate people about relactation and pushed for its importance, especially in the face of disasters. Ines has managed to help even grandmothers and women who are non-mothers to lactate!
  • There is a lot of politics surrounding breastfeeding and researchers, like Dr Julie Smith, have found that breastfeeding is seen as a weak link in the economy: “If they don’t see your work in the unpaid economy, they will not be able to produce policies that balance breastfeeding and work.” Dr Smith, who is a researcher from the Australian National University (ANU), specialises in studying maternal, child and public health policies among others. Dr Smith has written extensively about why breastfeeding should be valued more than what it currently is.

    Dr Amal Omer-Salim, a researcher at the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, said that the link of support for mothers and babies should not be broken for breastfeeding success. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

  • “Create a chain of support so at no time the mother and baby are dropped.” – Dr Amal Omer-Salim, who is the current coordinator of the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA), shared about how the link between a mother and baby is inextricable and should be unbroken. Breastfeeding support should support and cushion the mother-child dyad and none should be excluded or dropped; supporting both are equally important. WABA is a global network of individuals who are concerned with the promotion, protection and support for breastfeeding around the world.

    The first 1000 days of a baby’s life, and especially how he/she has been fed, determines the child’s adult health later on in life, according to veteran breastfeeding researcher Maureen Minchin. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

  • “Children bear the consequences of parents who were artificially fed. The presence of formula and bottle feed compounds and has a negative effect in the generation.” – Maureen Minchin. Well-known breastfeeding advocate and researcher, Maureen Minchin, who also came to Singapore last year to give a talk on a similar topic, reiterates her renowned research on how the health in adults are linked to what they were fed as babies, and that the impact crosses multiple generations.

Learning From Other Countries

Every single session packs a punch and I wished I could apply the fantastic practices in our nation. I learnt so many admirable practices from each country in my interactions with the delegates. The following were some of the things I had taken away at the conference which left an impression on my mind:

  • Indonesia – Just like in Singapore, Indonesia has a non-profit organisation set up to provide breastfeeding support to locals. Asosiasi Ibu Menyusui Indonesia (AIMI) works in similar ways to BMSG. However, as Indonesia is a large country made up of many provinces, AIMI attempts to operate at the provincial level. One of its strategies to overcome cultural and traditional barriers to breastfeeding include pushing fathers to take a proactive role for fathers as leaders of their households and as the most important source of support for their wives. AIMI has even successfully groomed a handful of male breastfeeding counsellors who are both knowledgeable about breastfeeding and able to provide support to mothers, but are also equipped to conduct educational programmes for fathers to become informed and aware participants in their wives’ breastfeeding journey. Do read more about our interview with one such breastfeeding counsellor, Hery Firdaus, in this issue.
  • Malaysia – Our next-door neighbour, Malaysia, has had impressive milestones in raising its breastfeeding rates. During the conference, representatives revealed that breastfeeding advocates in the country intend to raise the national breastfeeding rates to 70%! That is any impressive number considering how large Malaysia is.

    One of the segments during the conference was a cultural exchange among the attendees, who donned their traditional costumes, performed skits and sang songs as part of forming camaraderie. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

  • The Philippines – The Philippines are doing fantastic ground-up work on infant and young children feeding, especially during emergencies. Breastfeeding counsellors are trained to do relief work during emergencies by setting up mother- and baby-friendly spaces, providing lactation and re-lactation support, as well as helping to meet the health needs of mothers and their babies. Emergencies are common in the Philippines due to its geographical location; the country experiences frequent typhoons and other natural disasters from time to time. Thanks to the works of Ines and others like her, the Philippines has a strong relactation programme and support network as a result of advocates pushing for breastfeeding. They find that many mothers who formula-fed their babies  encounter health issues in their young ones. Filipino mothers frequently look to breastfeeding support groups for mothers in the Philippines for relactation support. Lactation massage, nipple stimulation, cross-feeding, milk-sharing and the drip-drop human milk method are some of the strategies put in place to assist women (including mothers, grandmothers and even non-mothers!) to relactate in the event of an emergency, where breastmilk is seen as a vital source of sustenance in the absence of water and sanitization.

    Bangladeshi’s support for mothers allows them six months of maternity leave! [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

  • Bangladesh – We also learnt that Bangladesh allows six months of maternity leave for mothers! As it recognises the need for breastfeeding mothers to establish a strong nursing relationship for babies during the first six months of their lives, we felt that this was a very encouraging and brave step for the Bangladeshi authorities to take in supporting of breastfeeding.

Singapore Lauded for Human Milk Bank & Fatwa

It was also a proud moment for me when Singapore was mentioned during the conference. We are admired and celebrated for having an official human milk bank and fatwa (Islamic religious edict) on human milk donation. Singapore is the only country in the region to have one!

Delegates from countries such as Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand are looking into setting up official human milk banks in their countries and are keen on learning from Singapore. This is something so close to my heart as I myself am a human milk donor to the KKH Milk Bank.

With other delegates during one of the plenary sessions at the conference. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

What’s Next?

Representatives from each country will be discussing the next conference date and venue via the regional network (IBFAN). Malaysia, as the host country, will be working on the actionable topics during the pre-conference such as improving maternity care through the Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI) , working towards tightening policies and systems on the International Code of Marketing Breastmilk Substitutes (WHO Code) and looking into the International Labour Organization (ILO) convention on women- and baby-related matters.

A pleasant surprise! Far’ain (in hijab) and another attendee at the event (both of whom brought their babies throughout the conference) received an unexpected soothing massage by a few Filipina representatives! Such an endearing mother-to-mother support in action. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]

For BMSG, we also have several After-Action Review and post-mortem tasks to complete. BMSG will look into working and reaching out to our stakeholders to actively support, protect and promote breastfeeding based on what we have learned during our trip.

Currently, we are working with agencies to strengthen our counselling processes and protocols, and looking into the role of breastfeeding during emergencies and disasters as part of our total defence. We are also in discussion with stakeholders on improving policies regarding feeding of children and infants during emergencies and looking into how we can improve and support baby-friendly hospitals.

BMSG is also keen on hosting the regional breastfeeding conference in Singapore in the years to come. We are constantly working on raising our breastfeeding profile and would be honoured to host future conferences!

BMSG representatives with Ines Fernandez (2nd from right). Ines had also previously came to Singapore to conduct a workshop on massage for inducing lactation earlier this year for breastfeeding enthusiasts. [Credits: Far’ain Jaafar]