Breastfeeding has big health benefits for mothers and babies, but many employed new mothers find the practice difficult to build into their working day. That’s despite evidence that higher rates of breastfeeding could bring economic upsides too.
Maternity leave is one way to encourage breastfeeding: it lets both mother and child benefit from an uninterrupted schedule and increased control over their environment. Meanwhile, returning to work is often cited as one of the most common reasons women stop breastfeeding regularly, particularly if conditions are unsuitable.
Government policy can play a big role in encouraging women to breastfeed at work. Here, Apolitical examines three policy measures designed to promote workplace breastfeeding.
Norway is a leader in workplace breastfeeding. Legislation allows women to take as much unpaid time as they want to breastfeed, but one-hour breaks are paid until the child is a year old.
After one year, all time off for breastfeeding is unpaid. In some unionised workplaces, women can take two paid hours to breastfeed and may also be paid for these breaks after a year.
“Breastfeeding is the norm in Norway,” says Guro Øydgard, a sociologist and member of Ammehjelpen, a group that shares breastfeeding advice. “It is quite normalised and accepted both to express breastmilk and to have the baby brought to the workplace to breastfeed.”
Øydgard says breastfeeding leave sometimes occurs by shortening the working day, or by allowing time to breastfeed at home then return to work — making it easier for women to combine work and breastfeeding.
But despite both legislation and mainstream culture favouring breastfeeding mothers in Norway, barriers remain. According to Øydgard, not all woman end up getting the time they are entitled to because employers can delay or fumble the process.
These problems may arise from discomfort with the idea of causing colleagues an increased workload because of their absence, Øydgard says.
There is also no law specifying dedicated spaces in workplaces to breastfeed or express milk.
Exclusive breastfeeding for six months in the Philippines is fairly uncommon, with just 34 per cent of mothers doing it, according to 2017 data from UNICEF. This is believed to contribute to undernourishment in infants.
But there have been government efforts, encouraged by NGOs operating in the country, to improve the situation. In 2009, the Expanded Breastfeeding Promotion Act was introduced to encourage breastfeeding at work.
This specified that workplaces must have a designated lactation area with appropriate facilities, such as refrigeration and a sink, and must not be in a toilet.
These areas must be kept “private, clean, sanitary, and well-ventilated” at all times.
The law also enshrined breastfeeding breaks. Workers are entitled to 40 minutes to breastfeed for each 8-hour working period, in addition to their meal breaks.
And the law called for employers to develop breastfeeding planning and to assist working mothers in combining work and lactating and strengthened legislation against advertising formula milk.
More recently, President Duterte introduced new legislation promoting maternity leave, extending the practice to from 60 days to 105 days paid, with the option to take another month unpaid.
But, as in Norway, challenges remain despite the legislation and favourable government. There are reports in local media that many mothers complain about the lack of legislated breastfeeding facilities at work, and sometimes encounter objections to breastfeeding in public.
United Arab Emirates
The UAE took a strong handed approach in response to low rates of exclusive breastfeeding, in 2014 making the practice compulsory for all mothers until their child is two years old. Theoretically, a husband could sue his wife if she violates this.
This policy was questioned within the UAE, with Social Affairs Minister Mariam al-Roumi saying it could be a “burden” on women.
Out of the Blues, a local group supporting mothers with postnatal illness, also highlighted the numerous medical reasons a woman might not be able to breastfeed for so long. “We are concerned that enacting a law that leaves mothers facing potential punishment could be a step too far,” the group said.
Dr Victoria Metcalf, a New Zealand lecturer in biochemistry and genetics who also runs a blog advocating for science in parenting, went further. She said the law was disempowering and pointed out research suggesting heightened pressure on mothers could have an adverse effect on their mental health.
“Ultimately it is a mother’s right to choose how she feeds her baby,” Dr Metcalf wrote. “It’s a balance between mother and child but choice does need to reside with the mother.”
But it is also unclear how the legislation would be enforced. Reports in local media suggest it isn’t strictly policed.
Maternity leave was also extended from 60 to 90 days and regulations around breastfeeding breaks at work were strengthened.
For six months after returning from maternity leave, a mother may have up to two hours to breastfeed each day, and an hour for another six months after that. Other measures include the heavy regulation of formula milk — which was historically used significantly in the UAE — including a ban on advertising.
The latest measures are the most stringent in a number of policy decisions which are believed to have slowly increased breastfeeding rates over time.
But purposely designed facilities are said to be lacking, and many women are reportedly still forced to use toilets. A 2017 report surveying breastfeeding in the UAE called for further “public and professional education to overcome the current barriers to successful exclusive breastfeeding” and the reinforcement of existing policies.
Government policies — particularly around workplace breaks — clearly contribute to improving breastfeeding rates.
“The existence of a national policy guaranteeing breastfeeding breaks until an infant is at least six months old was associated with significantly higher rates of exclusive breastfeeding,” WHO research concluded.
But it also warned improvements could be negligible if legislation remains unenforced, breaks are too short, or if no suitable facilities are available, including for storing express milk.
The effectiveness of legislation is also less known in some lower-income countries, where there is little data on how workplace breastfeeding policies affect women in the informal sector.
Signalling the importance of education, policymakers must consider the human factor in making their decisions – which can simply stem from feeling awkward. As Øydgard says: “Some women are afraid to be a burden, and therefore do not take all the time off that they need.” — Will Worley
(Picture Credit: Pixabay)