Jokes about ‘breast assault’ aside, Hong Kong has serious catching up to do to improve maternal and child health

Yonden Lhatoo says serious thought must be given to why so few women breastfeed or opt for natural birth in an advanced society like Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 August, 2015, 5:42pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 February, 2016, 11:41am

We’ve all had a bellyful of breast-related news reports, commentaries and jokes this past week after a Hong Kong court ruled that a woman who got into a scuffle with police during a protest in March had assaulted an officer with her breast.

I think her jail sentence of three-and-a-half months had more to do with the judge concluding that she had deliberately brushed her breast against the officer so that she could accuse him of molestation. But trust the global media and the internet to milk the story for all it’s worth and make it sound as if they’ve uncovered mammaries of mass destruction.

All this has eclipsed much more important news related to women’s breasts.

It’s the end of World Breastfeeding Week, and this year’s theme has been particularly relevant to Hong Kong because it’s about allowing working women to juggle breastfeeding with earning a living – an alien concept in this world city.

According to the latest research, in 2012 only 22 per cent of babies were exclusively breastfed for the first month. And that sad statistic plunged further to an abysmal 2 per cent for those who were fed with mother’s milk instead of manufactured formula for six months, the sustained duration recommended by the World Health Organisation.

Blame it on a combination of factors for new mothers – ignorance about the cost to the baby’s healthy growth and development, the need to get back to work after only 10 weeks of statutory maternity leave, and the scandalous conduct of hospital staff who discourage breastfeeding by promoting infant formula.

Oh, and don’t forget the blatantly fraudulent advertising by milk powder manufacturers. What I find hard to swallow is educated people actually believing that unmitigated tosh about genius toddlers weaned on tin cans in the TV ads. Pardon the pun, but there really is a sucker born every minute.

I’ve often wondered why breastfeeding is such a struggle in an advanced society like ours.

To begin with, we’re astonishingly still at the primitive stage where many continue to believe that formula is better for their babies, despite the wealth of scientific research telling them otherwise.

From irreplaceable nutrition and crucial bonding between mother and child to protection from a host of diseases in childhood as well as adult life, the benefits of breastfeeding are indisputable.

It also helps mothers lose weight gained during pregnancy and lowers their risk of getting ovarian and breast cancer.

It’s all perfectly designed by Mother Nature in all her infinite wisdom, but tell that to a population that considers caesarean sections to be the norm – more than 41 per cent of births in Hong Kong at the last count.

Does no one see a problem with this? It’s double the average rate of developed countries.

Again, as with breastfeeding, there’s a wealth of information out there about the risks and health complications for both mother and the child. And yet so many of our doctors will only look at the bottom line and convenience.

They don’t want to be woken up at 3am with a patient’s labour pains, and they can charge more for cutting babies out of women’s wombs before they’re ready to be born.

I’m sure there are many cases in which C-sections are necessary and breastfeeding is not possible for medical reasons. But among all the mums in my circle of friends and acquaintances, I can count only a couple who have had their babies through natural birth and breastfed them.

That can’t be right. If we must talk about breasts, weaponised ones are not really the issue.