Marta Maglio has changed the consciousness and behaviors of thousands of Argentine citizens and health professionals with regards to the importance of breastfeeding as a crucial avenue to ensure the physical and emotional health of parents and children alike. By focusing on the first months of parents’ relationships with their infants, Marta is strengthening family bonds and creating an enabling environment for the development of empathetic skills.
La idea nueva
When Marta gave birth to her third child in the United States she was surprised to see how much attention was given to breastfeeding. This was an issue that had never come up in her native Argentina, neither with her doctor nor with her peers. Upon Marta’s return to Argentina in the early 1970s, she set out to disseminate knowledge about this issue throughout the country, while developing mechanisms to support families through their transitions as parents.
What began as an exercise with a few mothers in her living room quickly transformed into a nationwide effort to disseminate knowledge and best practices around breastfeeding. Marta’s approach particularly powerful because it does not simply focus on the health benefits of breastfeeding, but rather makes the link with a broader understanding of what a healthy family constitutes. She recognizes that breastfeeding and many other prenatal and parenting best practices are important ways to ensure strong bonds between a child and his/her parents. By focusing on breastfeeding as a way to ensure empathetic family relations, Marta has contributed to an important transformation in Argentine society.
Marta has since established breastfeeding as a common practice throughout Argentina. She has done so through formally and informally training health professionals, parents, and educators about its benefits; leading massive public education campaigns; and creating public policies that guaranteed the rights of women to breastfeed, among others. In the early 2000s, Marta created the first nationally recognized postsecondary education degree in the field: Breastfeeding and Parenting. She is now pursuing partnerships with universities throughout the country to adopt this curriculum. Marta is doing so in order to ensure the growth of this profession, through a holistic approach that furthers the emotional and physical health of children and parents alike.
When Marta began her work more than 30 years ago, citizens and doctors were generally unaware of the advantages of breastfeeding. Although it might have been obvious for a doctor in the U.S. to mention the health benefits of breastfeeding to a new mother, this was not at all common practice in Argentina. At the time, physicians emphasized the importance of promoting a mother’s independence and a child’s autonomy through bottle-feeding or administering powdered milk. It did not occur to them that these practices might fail to boost babies’ immune systems and prevent ear and respiratory infections, stomach viruses, diarrhea, asthma, and a host of other illnesses. It was also not widely known among doctors for example that breastfeeding could help mothers recuperate more quickly after giving birth, or that it could prevent ovarian and breast cancer, post-partum depression and type 2 diabetes. The importance to connect with a baby at an emotional level was also overlooked as an important element of creating important family bonds.
In addition, very little attention was paid to the common challenges that affected new mothers. Nearly no support was given to women who experienced gradual weight gains as a result of their pregnancies; mastitis was not widely spoken about; finding breastfeeding alternatives for adopted children was never even identified as a potential issue; and the effects of breastfeeding on a mother’s timely return in the workplace were generally ignored. Although it is recommended for women—who make up 45 percent of the Argentine work force—to breastfeed for approximately six months after a child’s birth, national legislation and business practices did not foster a favorable environment for this.
The inadequacies of the health and justice systems to respond to pregnant women’s needs at the time were mainly due to the fact that knowledge about these issues was not disseminated amongst Argentina’s physicians or the general population. An obvious consequence followed: The inexistence of prenatal training programs targeting health professionals and health institutions. Not only were there no formal postsecondary education programs dedicated to breastfeeding, prenatal care, and childcare education in Argentina; but there also were no existing informal programs addressing these topics, be it through support groups or seminars catering to families or physicians.
Marta began her work in the 1970s as a result of a strong commitment to turning breastfeeding into a common practice throughout Argentina. Her vision was to transform behaviors and consciousness among Argentine society by getting doctors, hospitals and health centers involved with this mission, as part of a broader approach to giving mothers and families the support they needed to raise healthy, empathetic children.
In order to realize this vision, Marta employed a five-pillared strategy. She focused on developing formal and informal prenatal and parenting education curricula; disseminated information about the importance of breastfeeding and related it to the physical and empathetic health of families; created spaces where families could get the emotional support needed; established designated breastfeeding public spaces; and affected public policy.
Marta started this work from her living room with a handful of mothers and two physicians, and quickly understood the extent of the need for education about parenting. She therefore began working through community centers, health clinics, and churches in a number of neighborhoods in and around Buenos Aires to get the word out. Within two years, she had trained and mobilized 20 volunteer mothers capable of leading community support groups around such issues as breastfeeding and prenatal care, with a clear emphasis on the health of families. These efforts led to the establishment of the Liga de la Leche (Milk League) whose main goal was to create similar support groups in every province of Argentina as a way to spread information and best practices.
Marta later founded FUNDALAM in order to extend the scope and reach of her initiative from an informal education model to one that focused increasingly on the formalization of educational curricula about breastfeeding, prenatal care, and parenting. Realizing that parents were more likely to listen to their doctors than to their peers, Marta developed courses specifically for health professionals working in public hospitals, health clinics, and community centers. She understood that she needed them as allies if her approach to prenatal care and parenting were to gain broad acceptance in Argentine society. These trained professionals then became trainers themselves. FUNDALAM provided them with the systematized methodology and marketing materials to distribute to their clients.
Through FUNDALAM, Marta also began to systematically train volunteers to replicate the Liga de la Leche experience nationwide expanding on the topic of breastfeeding and taking into consideration other pregnancy-related issues such as the needs of children with special abilities or that of pregnant teenagers. She realized that parents in both situations needed particular attention and support. Not knowing how to deal with the fear and guilt, many parents reject and feel uncomfortable breastfeeding their own child. Marta recognized this challenge and developed workshops and support groups to cater to those two populations’ needs, with the clear understanding that building strong bonds between parents and their children in such difficult situations would greatly contribute to the health of the families. This approach to childcare helped many parents transform their relationships with their children and ensured their independency and intellectual development. Marta has also introduced capacity-building courses for Doulas—mothers who provide emotional support to women throughout their pregnancies—focusing equally on the mother’s and the child’s health. FUNDALAM is currently undergoing a certification process to turn this course into a professional specialization in postsecondary institutions.
Some of Marta’s most important contributions have been in the realm of public policy change. Marta has led the establishment of the first laws in Argentina guaranteeing the right of women to breastfeed. She is also responsible for extending maternity leave to up to an eight-month period for mothers with children with special needs. In addition, she has been able to shift public opinion about the need to have designated areas for breastfeeding and has introduced such spaces in a number of public institutions and private companies—e.g. Citibank, Deloitte, Coca Cola, and Philips—throughout the country. She has thus been able to revert a trend which was common among women in the 1970s, whom, in order to be truly independent, thought they had to give up breastfeeding. As a result of these efforts, Argentine women who want to remain active workers are no longer faced with an “either or” situation when it comes to ensuring the health and development of their children. Marta has also opened such spaces in two women’s jails in order to help mothers create strong bonds with their children despite the difficult situations they face in prison.
Having truly established breastfeeding as a recognized best practice throughout the country—by law and now by popular consensus—Marta is focusing on spreading prenatal care and parenting education as an esteemed profession. Her current goal is to ensure that the next generation of health professionals, upon graduating from university, is prepared to support men and women through their transitions to parenthood. In 2002 Marta established Argentina’s first nationally recognized postsecondary degree in breastfeeding and parenting through a partnership with the National University of San Martín. Thus far, 122 students have graduated from this program and 100 percent have been able to find jobs in this newly created profession. They are working in public hospitals, private practices, and community centers. Marta’s goal for the next five years is to spread this successful experience to Argentina’s main post-secondary institutions.
Having created the field of breastfeeding studies, prenatal care and parenting in Argentina, Marta is now recognized as a thought leader on these topics and is continuously advancing research in the area. She has disseminated her approach through numerous conferences such as the International Congress for Family in the Americas and the Meeting on Breastfeeding for Professionals. In addition, she established a magazine, Mamando (Breastfeeding), which was massively distributed on the Internet and in paper format to doctors, parents, and educators throughout the country. Marta has also led a number of large public education and media campaigns. One of the most influential, “Amamantar: Dale Amor y Salud a tu Bebe” (Breastfeeding: Giving Love and Health to your Baby), was the result of a partnership with the municipal government of Buenos Aires. It disseminated information about the importance of breastfeeding through advertisements on television, radio, and the public transportation system.
As a result of her work Marta has fostered the emergence of a number of replicators in every region of Argentina. Her leadership has also brought about the first breastfeeding support groups in Uruguay. Between 2006 and 2008, Marta worked with more than 5,300 mothers, 3,000 health professionals, 60,000 children and 50 Doulas. In those two years alone, she established more than six breastfeeding and breastpumping spaces and has affected the lives of over 70,000 families throughout Argentina.
Marta has in large part been able to spread her work through strategic partnerships. For example, she stepped in as the Argentine partner in the global UNICEF and WHO sponsored program Mother- and Children-Friendly Hospitals, which sought to ensure that hospitals become breastfeeding-friendly environments. Argentina now has 26 participating hospitals and the number is growing. The program helped hospital staff understand the importance of breastfeeding for the mother and her child.
Marta obtained a degree in psychology and various certificates in mental health and therapy oriented toward family health. She first learned about the importance of breastfeeding and family bonds while living in the U.S. and giving birth to her third child. Through this experience she realized the huge gap needed to be filled in Argentina where health professionals and citizens did not even recognize breastfeeding as a potentially beneficial activity.
Upon moving back to Buenos Aires in 1972, Marta decided to fill the information gap that existed in the country. She undertook a nationwide effort that established breastfeeding as a recognized best practice to ensure the health of children, mothers, and families. Marta founded Argentina’s Breastfeeding League and later FUNDALAM to materialize this vision. She has also participated in numerous networks and associations such as the World Movement of Mothers, the Scientific Committee of the Observatory on Maternity and the Association of University Parenting Majors. She is the author and co-author of many publications on the topic of breastfeeding.
Marta is the mother of six children and lives in Buenos Aires.