Making Breastfeeding at Work a Priority: Empowering Women and Nurturing Societies
A woman in a health clinic in Kenya breastfeeds while waiting for immunization. Breastfeeding can be done anywhere. Photo: PATH/Anthony Karumba.
Breastfeeding offers children vital health and nutritional benefits with positive lifelong impacts. The bond between a mother and her child during breastfeeding is incomparable, providing nourishment, antibodies, and emotional connection. Moreover, breastfeeding builds healthier populations by reducing the risk of obesity, chronic diseases, and infections among children. It also promotes maternal health by decreasing the risk of breast and ovarian cancers and supporting postpartum recovery.
Unfortunately, many working women face difficulty choosing between breastfeeding their children and pursuing their careers. Many women across the world lack access to crucial maternity provisions, leaving them unsupported upon returning to work. The lack of support and adequate policies often force them to compromise their ability to breastfeed.
Empowering women to breastfeed successfully
Establishing supportive environments that enable women to balance their professional responsibilities and breastfeeding journey is essential.
The health system plays a crucial role as the first point of contact for women after delivery. By providing comprehensive guidance and assistance, the health system ensures the establishment and maintenance of successful breastfeeding practices for the well-being of both the mother and the breastfeeding infant.
To effectively support women in the workplace, the health system should prioritize the following aspects:
- Education and Awareness: Health professionals should provide comprehensive and evidence-based information on the benefits of breastfeeding, proper latch and positioning techniques, and strategies to overcome common challenges. This knowledge equips women with the confidence and understanding necessary to navigate breastfeeding successfully in the workplace. Additionally, healthcare professionals should receive ongoing training to enhance their knowledge and skills in breastfeeding support.
- Lactation Support Services: Establishing accessible and dedicated lactation support services within healthcare facilities can be invaluable for working mothers. These services should include specialized lactation support, i.e., conducting breastfeeding assessments, addressing concerns or difficulties, and providing appropriate interventions or referrals. It may also include peer group support, and access to breastfeeding equipment.
- Community Engagement: The health system should engage with community organizations, breastfeeding support groups, and other stakeholders to create a support network for working mothers. By fostering collaboration and sharing resources, the health system can help establish a robust support system for breastfeeding women in the workplace.
At PATH we work to strengthen systems for optimizing integrated newborn nutrition programming and ensure universal access to exclusive human milk diets. Through our Mother-Baby Friendly Initiative Plus model (MBFI+) (Newborn Nutrition: Increasing Access and Intake of Human Milk | Maternal, Newborn, Child Health & Nutrition | PATH), we work with governments, leaders and health care providers to institutionalize a comprehensive approach that empowers women to breastfeed and nurture their infants.
Our initiative establishes Human Milk Banks as welcoming hubs for all mothers, including working mothers, offering the necessary lactation support they need to breastfeed successfully. We mobilize healthcare workers and communities to support and encourage breastfeeding, ensuring that these women have the necessary assistance. Additionally, we provide safe, pasteurized donated milk from HMBs when a mother's milk is unavailable, giving working mothers a reliable safe alternative.
A collective effort from all stakeholders is needed to support breastfeeding
In addition to the health system, policymakers play a crucial role in driving positive change. By legislating paid maternity leave, preferably extending it to more than six months, they ensure that women have the necessary time to bond with their newborns and establish breastfeeding routines. This legislation should extend to women in all sectors, including the informal sector, to ensure equitable access to breastfeeding support.
Additionally, employers and managers must step up to create breastfeeding-friendly workplaces. Meeting national requirements for paid maternity leave is the baseline, but going beyond it demonstrates a commitment to the well-being of employees. Providing designated lactation rooms and spaces for breastfeeding or expressing milk and paid time off ensures that women can continue breastfeeding at work. Employers can also explore flexible work schedules, on-site childcare, teleworking, and part-time work. These initiatives reduce the separation between women and their babies, facilitating continued breastfeeding.
Breastfeeding is a fundamental right to be supported and protected in all workplaces. As we observe World Breastfeeding Week, let us acknowledge the significance of breastfeeding for the health and well-being of children and mothers. By advocating for adequate maternity provisions, creating breastfeeding-friendly workplaces, and fostering a supportive culture, we can empower working women to succeed in their professional endeavors while nurturing the next generation.