Connected Motherhood: Laying the Best Foundations of Lifelong Health

By: Nadine Casino

There are 3 babies born every second in the Philippines.

There is a mother crying with her baby in the middle of the night with bleeding nipples and grief that she is not enough for her child.

There is a father checking his wallet if there is enough money for meals for the family and for milk ration for his little one.

There is a child fed with rice washings or coffee creamer because there is nothing to be fed anymore.

These are realities I have seen in my years of trying to help mothers breastfeed.

Hello I am Nadine. I am a mother and breastfeeding advocate committed to create enabling environments so that mothers are nurtured and empowered so babies can get the best starts in life. I run our household, a social enterprise, and a breastfeeding community.

Breastfeeding is a vital part of providing every child with the healthiest start in life. We put so much pressure on women to breastfeed, but we fail miserably to support them. Breastfeeding is the number one intervention to prevent deaths and illnesses in children because of its immunoprotective properties. It is the only infant food that contains live antibodies that changes according to the age and need of a child. Not breastfeeding means babies are at risk for poor health. Mothers are also at higher risk of developing disease like cancers or diabetes. On top of that is the emotional grief mothers go through for not meeting their breastfeeding goals. Families bear heavy economic burden to sustain artificial feeding.

How did I come to such awareness? How did I develop that passion to help mothers? Why do I do, what I do?

Encouraged Beginnings

I fell in love with my children. When I became a mother, my children became my world. I wanted to know the best and I wanted to give the best. I made sure I gave the best nutrition and the best nurturing. Because of this desire, I actively searched for knowledge and resources that could help me give that to them. I was always worried I was doing it wrong. I was a young mom crying with my baby because my nipples were cracked and sore. But I did not give up, I wanted to prove I knew what I did was right despite the skepticism. “You are spoiling your baby from carrying her too much.” “Your milk is giving your baby rashes”. I was lucky enough to find the right information and support that I needed when I was looking for it.

I had supportive family, friends, pediatrician, and work environments. I enjoyed the benefits of breastfeeding and finished my master’s degree while towing a newborn in class. I had supportive friends who were with me through the ups and downs of motherhood, who understood what I was going through.They helped form a safe space for me to figure it all out. To have this privileged start is a blessing, and through this, an idea came to me “More mothers should have right information and support!” And that was where my desire stemmed from: the desire to share what I experienced and learned. I wanted to gather mothers and share with them the joys of motherhood. We would survive it together.

I discussed this idea with my pediatrician, and she encouraged me. She did not brush it off nor scoff at it, rather she referred me to a training to become a breastfeeding peer counselor. During that training, I learned the amazing benefits of breastfeeding and the skill to help mothers breastfeed. It helped me create this awareness that women are preyed upon by formula milk companies. Women are failing to breastfeed because of misconceptions and lies. It was not our bodies failing, it was our environments failing us! We are pressured to breastfeed our babies, but do not get the right support or information. Artificial milk is prescribed at birth when breastmilk has not come in and is marketed as premium food that offers convenience and gives equal health benefits. Misconceptions proliferate about breastfeeding from family or neighbors (e.g. “your baby is unsatisfied because you are not producing enough”; “it runs in the family”). There are inflexible work accommodations or judgmental stares from breastfeeding in public. From these circumstances, a mother’s failure will rake in billion-dollars revenue for milk companies. It has been happening for decades and it is women and children paying the price of greed.

After the training, I went home with this burning passion to help mothers breastfeed and ensure babies get the best starts in life. This started my journey to help mothers. I excitedly share the skills I learned with my friends and gathered up the courage to organize a mommy meet up.

The Story of 3 to Thousands

Sharing motherhood with the people I shared my youth is a blessing; I did not feel alone, confused, or lost. My close college friends and I got pregnant just months apart. That means we supported each other through surviving university life up until we exchanged birth stories. It was a bond that was accepting and supportive. We shared the tears and joys of love, life, and motherhood. I shared this connection with 3 friends, so together we built a community which grew to help thousands.

In a little café way back 2012, we sent out invitations for a mommy meet up, only to have 2 moms attend plus a young aunt who just dropped by to pick up a parcel. We shared experiences and lessons about breastfeeding, cloth diapering and babywearing. It was a small group but the joy to impart useful knowledge to others was immense. This event led us to organize more projects and meet equally passionate young mothers who became our “breastfriends”. Each year, we organize community activities to raise awareness about our advocacies, always with babies in tow. We created an online forum where mothers can share information and experiences. We also collected breastmilk for sick, premature babies and helped them during crisis. Our community grew and gathered mothers who shared the same dedication to their families and had equal compassion to help other women. While we were learning the ropes of motherhood, building our careers, or running our households we gave time to volunteer and support.

We created a new culture of motherhood.

A kind of motherhood that makes choices based on evidence-based information and practical advice.

A kind of motherhood that responds to misconception and misinformation with empathy and kindness.

A kind of motherhood who supports one another and lifts each other.

Through the community we were able to support premature babies in critical conditions, respond to distressed moms with fussy babies and helped them continue breastfeeding, comfort mothers suffering from postpartum blues, enable working moms to continue expressing breastmilk, and we were even able to provide relief during calamities. A group that started from 3 friends is now growing to 18,000 thousand online and reaching out to communities changing norms, we are the Modern Nanays of Mindanao.

Enabling Environments: Make No Mom Feel Alone

A siege broke through a nearby city in 2017. Families were displaced because of an armed conflict. It was a 2-hour trip to the nearest evacuation center, we organized a relief effort for mothers and babies, and in 4 days we were able to mobilize the community in a local mall to prepare relief packs wrapped in a malong. A malong is a traditional piece of cloth that can be used as a baby carrier, hammock, blanket, prayer mat, skirt and so on. Before distributing our relief packs in evacuation centers, we counselled mothers to protect their milk supply and protect them from the dangers of artificial milk. We also set-up mother baby friendly tents and community kitchens which provided mother and child dyads with a safe space, a fresh hot meal, and psychosocial support. All of these were done through “nanay bayanihan” describing civic unity among mothers. It was not an effort that was mandated, it was an effort from the empathy of the community: mothers for mothers. See what a group of dedicated women can do with the little that we have? We help mothers where they are, be it in normal circumstance or disasters even with our limited means. We have built enabling environments for each other through civic engagement.

Our country is highly affected by climate change, so we experience typhoons on a regular basis.  On top of that, poverty, insurgencies, and man-made disasters are also experienced. Infants become collateral damage to these unfortunate conditions. We may not save all babies, but in our little ways we do what we can to protect those we can. Breastfeeding gives a fighting chance for infants to survive and thrive. Mothers supporting each other enables optimal child feeding and care.

Imagine each mother in a community with a network of compassionate breastfeeding advocates, an accessible breastfeeding support clinic where you can get skilled lactation management, and cities with policies and ordinances that place your right to breastfeed as top priority; more mothers will be enabled to meet their breastfeeding goals and lay the best foundations of lifelong health for children.

The lack of skills and resources hinder us to scale up best practices limiting our capacity to reach more mothers. We are happy to serve but are challenged to find funding and womanpower. Volunteers are left burned out and struggling to support our families and deliver services. There are still many women left behind and are alone in motherhood which means many babies are fed suboptimally and families continue carrying the heavy burden of artificial feeding.

Through the ThinkWell Samya Stumo Fellowship, I desire to empower mothers and connect to other breastfeeding champions so we can create more enabling communities. We should scale up our impact to farthest corners of the Philippines so more mothers become aware and have healthier children. How can we organize more sustainable organizations? How can we put up more breastfeeding support centers? How can we talk to more policy shapers? We need to invest in women: the nurturers of humankind!

There is a future where mothers are enabled and empowered.

There is a mother relieved because she had skilled support to address her cracked nipples.

There is a father looking at his wallet and pulls out enough to pay for food for the entire family and worries not if it will be enough.

There is a child fed from her mother’s breast looking up gazing at her loving eyes.