JAKARTA: Mr Agus Rahmat Hidayat and his wife Mdm Ayu Damayantie had imagined that the arrival of their firstborn baby would bring them pure bliss, but the experience proved to be a mixed bag of emotions.
The premature boy, born after 32 weeks of pregnancy in 2010, had problems latching on.
“The first three months were a real drama,” said Mr Hidayat, 39, recalling the stress and confusion.
The couple had been told in antenatal classes that the most important thing was to believe they can breastfeed. When he brought this up, Mdm Damayantie felt pressured.
The first-time parents subsequently resorted to infant formula, but this only lasted a week as the newborn was allergic to milk.
At his wit’s end, Mr Hidayat took to Twitter for support. He wrote about their problems, which were later retweeted by the Indonesian Breastfeeding Mothers Association (AIMI).
Many people responded, sharing their own experiences.
“I showed my wife and it helped her psychologically because she didn’t feel alone afterward. There were many out there who have the same problem,” he said.
AIMI counselors also taught them breastfeeding techniques they had never learned before. As it turned out, premature babies require a different breastfeeding approach.
With the newfound knowledge, Mdm Damayantie was able to breastfeed in three days.
On the invitation of AIMI, Mr Hidayat met up with seven other new fathers who had also turned to Twitter for help when their wives could not breastfeed.
They discussed the need to raise awareness on breastfeeding among men, as it is equally important for the husbands to learn so they can support their wives in their breastfeeding journey.
They decided on writing a book about their respective experiences. The manuscript was close to completion when a publisher pointed out that it would be difficult to market their book when they were nobody – just ordinary fathers and not doctors or lactation experts.
To gauge public response, the group set up a Twitter account called Ayah ASI Indonesia (translated into Indonesian fathers who support breastfeeding) for men to discuss breastfeeding.
“Surprising, there was a huge interest. People were excited, we had many followers,” Mr Hidayat said.
Their book was eventually launched in 2012, and Ayah ASI became a well-known breastfeeding advocacy group in Indonesia.
A PLATFORM FOR MEN TO TALK FREELY
In Indonesia, early initiation of breastfeeding in 2017 was only 57.8 per cent, far below the 90 per cent target, according to the health ministry data.
Meanwhile, malnutrition remains a serious problem. Ministry data showed that 17.7 per cent of children under the age of five suffer from malnutrition in 2018.
In an attempt to help improve the situation, Ayah ASI teaches men about the technical aspects of breastfeeding in seminars and classes.
It also shares with the participants that their support can come in many forms, such as doing house chores and refrain from adding on to the stress of breastfeeding mothers.
The events are for men, because the aim is to promote and normalise breastfeeding in Indonesia from a male perspective.
“Men actually do not mind talking about breastfeeding.
“It’s just that when women are present, men tend to sit there quietly and let the women do all the talking.
“That’s why we decided to conduct the classes for men only so that they can talk freely,” said Mr Hidayat, who works in a Jakarta-based non-governmental organization focusing on HIV.
He noted that the men who take part in their classes come from various backgrounds. They could be new fathers, or young men sent there by their girlfriends.
As its followers grew, Ayah ASI opened up chapters in other Indonesian cities. There are now 10 Ayah ASI chapters in Sumatra, Java and Bali.
They attracted lots of followers on social media. The main Ayah ASI, for instance, has 413,000 followers on Twitter and 64,000 on Instagram.
Surprisingly, Ayah ASI has a lot of female fans as well. On Instagram, its female followers outnumber the male followers.
“It seems women feel at ease sharing their experience on our platform because we don’t judge.
“Some share with us that they sometimes get comments like ‘you’re simply not trying hard enough’ at other platforms,” Mr Hidayat said.
TEACHING DISASTER VICTIMS
Since Ayah ASI Indonesia was set up to be a fun community, the eight co-founders have no intention to make it a legal entity, fearing that it would become too serious and boring.
But this also meant that they do not have full-time staffers to strategise and run their programmes, and have to fund the activities out of their own pockets.
Profits from their book have been donated to AIMI.
Over time, the Ayah ASI work also became mundane for the eight men, who are no longer newbies in parenthood as each of them now has two kids.
Earlier this year, they had the opportunity to expand their reach and equip more fathers with breastfeeding knowledge in disaster-hit zones.
“A volunteer in Palu, Sulawesi, reached out to us and asked whether we would give breastfeeding classes for the earthquake and tsunami victims living in shelters.
“We developed a module on breastfeeding during disasters and also held a similar class for evacuees in Lombok,” Mr Hidayat said.
OPPORTUNITY FOR DADS TO BOND WITH BABIES
Mdm Elva Sativia, a mother of two living in Jakarta, told CNA that she is happy to have a network like Ayah ASI to talk about issues affecting pregnant mothers.
Her husband also follows Ayah ASI, which turns out to be helpful when she was pregnant with her second child in 2015.
“When breastfeeding caused me so much pain, he took the initiative to seek help from AIMI and Ayah ASI via email,” Mdm Sativia said.
In addition to programmes related to breastfeeding, Ayah ASI also started a “I Support Pregnant Women” campaign, handing out pins to members of the public to encourage them to offer seats to pregnant women on public transport.
Ayah ASI has never imagined that its programmes can reach so many people.
It was even invited to speak in Penang in Malaysia this year at the World’s Alliance for Breastfeeding Action.
Mr Hidayat said people are usually surprised to know that there are fathers who care about breastfeeding. All these motivate them to continue with their voluntary work.
“We now have a module, which we hope many people can learn and use.
“For instance, if health clinics are interested, we can share the module with them too. This is our dream for 2020,” Mr Hidayat said.
To reach out to more Indonesians, Ayah ASI might also host classes for mothers with babies up to three months old.
It plans to engage the parents until the baby reaches six months old.
“To us, supporting breastfeeding is a way for fathers to be involved in parenting.
“When you support breastfeeding, you learn how to hold a baby. While at it, you learn how to bond with the baby, perhaps telling stories to the baby.
“You learn how to share chores with your wife. And all these are very important as you take the next steps in life together,” said Mr Hidayat.