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Despite high breastfeeding initiation rates in Serbia, Bosnia, and Croatia, fewer mothers are still nursing when their babies are six months old. What obstacles prevent mothers in this region from nursing for longer? SteadyHealth investigates.
A significant minority of self-reported non-breastfeeding mothers shared that the feeling that people in their social circle were unsupportive of breastfeeding partially motivated them to formula feed: 10.4% in Serbia, 9.09% in Srpska, 7.6% in FBiH, and a lower 4.55% in Croatia.

What opinions and beliefs did our participants encounter within their social circles? We asked both those who breastfed for any length of time, and those who did not.

We found out that an overwhelming majority of mothers had heard the idea that breastfeeding was the most natural way to feed a baby from their friends and relatives: 93.26% of Croatian mothers, 87.21% of mothers from BiH, 85.3% of mothers from Srpska, and 80% of Serbian mothers. Over half of participants across all four regions had also heard the opinions that breast milk functions in accordance with the system of supply and demand so that each mother has the exact amount she needs to feed her baby, and that breastfeeding in public is completely acceptable.

However, they also received some very different messages:

  • A mother’s milk can suddenly disappear. (FBiH: 44.19%, Srpska: 32.95%, Croatia: 30.34%, Serbia: 28%)

  • A mother’s milk can “go sour”. (Serbia: 20.5%, other regions, under 6%)

  • Breastfeeding mothers do not, themselves, know whether or not they have enough milk. (Srpska: 37.5%, Serbia: 31%, Croatia: 30.34%, FBiH: 24.42%)

We asked lactivist Tereza Kis Miljkovic where the idea that milk can "go sour" comes from. While she did not know where this longstanding myth originated, because it has seemingly been around forever, she did explain under which circumstances people believe milk can "go sour": if a mother's breasts are engorged, if she eats sour foods, and if she sunbathes.

An approximate 10% of mothers in Serbia, Srpska and Croatia also heard the idea that babies who are smaller than average need formula, while nearly 7% of mothers from FBiH encountered the same view.

What’s more, 6.5% (Serbia), 6.98% (FBiH), 3.41% (Srpska) and 7.87% (Croatia) had heard, within their personal surroundings, that  “breastfeeding leads to spoiled children”!

Which people in breastfeeding mothers’ personal social circles were most supportive of their choice to nurse their children, then? Partners topped the list in all four regions, with 58% of Serbian breastfeeding mothers reporting that their partners offered them support, along with 31.53% of participants from Srpska, 30.5% of FBiH respondents, and 27.54% of those we surveyed in Croatia. Everywhere, the participants’ own mothers came in second.

It is fascinating to note that only our Serbian and Croatian participants explicitly listed male relatives besides their partners and fathers as being supportive of breastfeeding. While between 2.9% and 6.4% of participants said “everyone” in their social circle was supportive of breastfeeding in Croatia and both parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and between 2.4% and 4.43% said “the whole family” was supportive, Serbian respondents also listed their fathers in-law (2.5%), brothers (2%), and even brothers in-law (0.5%) as being supportive. A token 0.48% of Croatian participants likewise said their fathers in law supported their breastfeeding efforts.

Healthcare providers appeared very low down the list of options, with 5% of Serbian respondents listing their health visitor as being supportive, but less than five percent across all regions mentioning their OBGYNs, nurses, midwives, and pediatricians.

One of the parameters by which the general societal acceptance of breastfeeding can be measured is the acceptance of breastfeeding in public. For this reason, we asked our participants who breastfed whether or not they nursed in public, what reactions they encountered if they did, and why they chose not to breastfeed in public if they didn’t.

We received the following responses.

  • 41% of Serbian participants breastfed in public and received neutral reactions, 11% received positive reactions, and 14% was met with negative reactions. 34% did not nurse in public.

  • In BiH, 30.04% encountered neutral reactions to breastfeeding in public, 8.8% positive reactions, 17.8% negative reactions, and 43% never nursed in public locations.

  • 25.64% of Srpska respondents was met with neutral reactions, 6.41% with positive reactions, and 17.95% with negative comments and behaviors. A full half of participants from Srpska who otherwise nursed did not do so in public.

  • In Croatia, 32.47% of mothers encountered neither positive nor negative reactions, while 11.69% received positive reactions and 14.29% negative ones. 41.56% did not breastfeed in public.

Some responses from FBiH, for example “I wouldn’t breastfeed in the presence of men, such as my father or brother — I do have some honor”, reveal that cultural beliefs may explain why a lower number of mothers chose to nurse in public there. Likewise, more FBiH respondents added that they used a cover-up if they nursed in public than did women from the other three regions.

At the same time, FBiH participants had some of the bolder responses:

“I don’t care what others think: what matters is that my child isn’t hungry” and “If they don’t like it, let them turn their heads the other way”.

In Serbia, too, we got responses like "I breastfed, but never in public; I believe this to be depraved” and "mothers should manage their time so that there is no need to breastfeed in public." There were mothers who said "I have three kids and mostly got positive comments” and “I think breastfeeding in public is totally accepted here”, along with those who made comments like; "In our country, the trend is still: Oh look, boobs! Let's stare at them!"

While many mothers from Srpska said that they “of course” nursed in public (“Whenever my baby was hungry, in the park, at the doctor’s, on the beach, I don’t care, as long as my baby is happy” and “I didn’t get a single negative comment”), there were also those who were told that “you should do ‘that’ at home”.

In Croatia, mothers’ attitudes ranged from “it is my maternal right to feed my baby whenever and wherever” to “my partner didn’t like me doing that” and one mother was asked:  “Why do you want to show your body parts off?”

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