Kenyan mothers choose between work and their babies

Caroline Wairimu was lucky to be a position to take six months off work

The 25-year-old Kenyan returned to her job three months after giving birth and as a result was unable to breastfeed her baby girl for the recommended six months.

The trained nutritionist says she had no choice as her family needed the money.

"I had to go back to work for our survival," she explains.

But she is surrounded by advice that she made the wrong choice for her daughter.

Kenya's health authority recommends that babies should be fed only breast milk for the first six months. Also, the government has made it mandatory for formula milk manufacturers to mention both in advertising campaigns and on products that breastmilk is recommended.

The World Health Organization (WHO) says that giving a baby only breast milk for six months "offers a powerful line of defence against all forms of child malnutrition". It says it also acts as a baby's "first vaccine, protecting them against many common childhood illnesses".

Overall, Kenya has high breastfeeding rates, with nearly all babies breastfed in the immediate period after birth. But only just over 60% of babies are exclusively breastfed for a full six months, according to data published by the International Breastfeeding Journal.

"I had to give my daughter cow's milk despite being a nutritionist and knowing well that her system could not easily digest it," Ms Saronge says.

Infant formula - usually made from cow's milk that has been treated to make it more suitable for babies - was unaffordable for her, with the price having risen since the government reintroduced a sales tax of 16% on the product in 2021.

To make matters worse, Ms Saronge says the three months she did take off after giving birth were unpaid because, like many other Kenyans, she did not have a proper employment contract that would have legally entitled her to receive maternity pay.

With her husband earning a good income, Caroline Wairimu was able to quit her marketing job when she gave birth to twins.

"The best way to encourage mothers to exclusively breastfeed for six months is to give them six months paid maternity. Most give up after three months because balancing work and motherhood is hard," she says.

Currently, new mothers, who have an employment contract, are entitled to three months paid maternity leave.

Women's rights activist Ruth Mumbi says the government is not concerned about women's issues and has therefore not shown an interest in giving longer maternity leave.

The labour ministry did not respond to the BBC's request for comment.

But the health ministry says significant progress has been made by giving mothers three months fully paid maternity leave. The government though is not at the moment considering extending the period through further amendments to labour legislation.

Some analysts believe the authorities are facing strong resistance from employers - President Uhuru Kenyatta failed to sign into law a bill passed in parliament in 2016, making it mandatory for companies to provide breastfeeding rooms. The bill was reintroduced in 2019, but has still not been approved by parliament.

But the director of nutrition at the health ministry, Veronica Kirogo, says the government is committed to the proposed legislation, with many government departments and 50 private sector companies having already set up breastfeeding rooms.

This allows mothers to either have someone bring their baby for breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk and storing it in a refrigerator.