Breastfeeding and work: let’s make it work

Women all over the world continue to play dual roles as workers and carers. When women workers choose to exercise their reproductive rights, their economic life becomes subject to the law, policy and societal prejudices. A woman worker who is a mother also has to consider everything from time off during her pregnancy to the length of her maternity leave, from flexible working arrangement policies to lactation breaks at her workplace.

Women from poorer countries disproportionately work in the informal sector where they do not have any social protection at all. Such matters are too often seen as unimportant ‘women’s issues’ and a woman worker’s role as mother and carer is often only tolerated rather than admired, supported and celebrated.

However, attitudes and options are both changing. At the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action, we believe women’s participation in work is vital because they are drivers of change. Women are independent economic units, responsible for their own economic survival and well-being.

The economic value of women’s contribution to the national economy is perceived as low, and reproductive work is not considered to be adding to the wealth of a country. Yet childbearing and lactation are biological functions that only women can undertake.

Women should be able to engage in paid work and other work, and with adequate support still care for children and breastfeed. A mother should be supported to balance her productive and reproductive work without having to sacrifice one for the other.

One example is Brazilian mother Ana Raquel Bueno Moraes Ribeiro, an organisational development consultant:

“Breastfeeding and working have not been incompatible for me. Both are fundamental aspects of my life. I cannot imagine myself away from work; in the same way I would never think of motherhood without breastfeeding. I think it is in this confidence that I get the strength to face problems that can come my way,” she says.

“There were difficulties that challenged my conviction, but by looking at the healthy and happy eyes of my children, and by feeling the affection of our skin touching, I feel sure that breastfeeding was our best choice,” she adds.

Balancing: the key to women’s rights and to a strong, healthy and vibrant workforce

When a woman chooses to become a mother, she has a right to do what’s best for her child, and the best available advice and evidence recommends breastfeeding. Breastfeeding contributes greatly to maternal and child health. Breastfeeding helps prevent disease and promotes optimum growth and development.

A recent study in 2016 found that paid and extended maternity leave may help to reduce infant mortality in several ways. This is because paid maternity leave, with its guarantee of income and job security, may reduce a woman’s stress level, a known risk factor in preterm birth and low birthweight. She can also better work through breastfeeding challenges and establish a routine.

A breastfeeding mother is productive as she is producing food and providing protection and care for her child. Breastfeeding also reduces environmental threats caused by the production of artificial milk substitutes.

Lack of exclusive breastfeeding has been shown to be a drain on family resources, not only for paying the costs of the artificial milk substitutes and their preparation and storage, but also for the extra cost of illness and the lost wages due to absences associated with child illness. Breastfeeding contributes to a more stable workforce as it reduces staff absenteeism.

Studies in the USA and elsewhere have shown that breastfed babies had statistically fewer episodes of illness than formula-fed infants and that mothers of breastfed babies were less absent than mothers of bottle-fed babies.

Employers who support their female employees by recognising their entitlement which includes maternity benefits, breastfeeding breaks, lactating rooms, flexible working practices and child care facilities or crèches within the office vicinity note improved staff morale, less turnover and increased loyalty to the work sector.

Creating an ideal socio-economic environment to enable working women to breastfeed also addresses gender inequality. Therefore, work policies that allow both women and men to successfully combine work with maternity, paternity and care responsibilities are important to all.

By adequately integrating women’s and men’s productive and reproductive work and lives, all sectors of society will benefit. Balancing work and family life, including breastfeeding, is the key to women’s rights and as well as strong, healthy and vibrant workforce.