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What employers need to know about breastfeeding

What employers need to know about breastfeeding

I wrote this piece 7 years ago for a writing course I was doing, but found it and wanted to share it publicly. It made me cry because, the better part of a decade has passed and breastfeeding mums are still facing these challenges - Nat. 

This morning the Best for Babes Foundation asked its Facebook followers what advice they had for a mother returning to work after maternity leave. Her employer had told her the day before that she would only be able to pump breast milk during her lunch hour instead of the three times requested. A furore followed, with Facebook breastfeeding mums expressing outrage, sympathy, and strategies to allow the mum to pump.  

But why is this even happening? Why does this poor woman need to find support like this? Sure, this happened in the United States, but unfortunately this is a problem many breastfeeding mothers face here in New Zealand too.

After I left the maternity hospital with my daughter this June, I watched the Ministry of Health's hospital-issued free breastfeeding DVD on the couch as I wore sweatpants, ignored the laundry, and breastfed my daughter. I had been told about the benefits of breastfeeding by my health workers. I knew it would help transfer immunities from me to her, increase her feeling of safety and comfort, and help her thrive. I wondered what it might be like to incorporate this new life with my work life. The DVD painted an idyllic picture of breastfeeding and working in this country. I felt hopeful.   

However, the reality communicated by mothers through social media, coffee groups, and other forums is quite different. Horror stories are normal. Discrimination is normal. Women are spending their lunch hours in toilets, expressing milk for their babies. They are putting up with co-workers who query the accommodations made for breastfeeding women, who complain of ‘human excrement’ in the staff fridge, or who moo at women who pump.

Yes, by law breastfeeding women are entitled to unpaid breaks in the work day to pump, and to privacy, but laws are just words without active support from employers. Eventually, some mothers decide that while “Breast is Best”, so are organic vegetables. With many families relying on a dual income it just isn’t worth it to breastfeed.  

At six months of age, only 26% of New Zealand babies are breastfed. This is despite the Ministry of Health’s large advertising budget for promotion of breastfeeding on television, billboards, bus stops, and in hospitals. Heck, even formula companies promote breastfeeding.

New mums are told "Good Mothers breastfeed". Health professionals explain that breast milk satisfies all infant needs, and promotes bonding between mother and baby. So why the low rates?

I believe it's because the Government still sees breastfeeding as a woman's issue, as opposed to a public health issue. There is simply too little employer education. The ministries of Health and Business have published some information for employers, but there are no videos, posters, billboards, pamphlets, and television commercials supporting this effort. 

The Government acknowledges that women see returning to work as a barrier to breastfeeding, but does not do enough to actively support breastfeeding in employment. The position seems to be: breastfeeding is for a woman to negotiate. (Contributing further to poorer health outcomes for groups less leveraged to negotiate effectively.)

This is despite the fact that employers benefit when an employee breastfeeds. NZ Telstra Clear (now Vodafone) saved $75,000 per employee when it supported breastfeeding in employment. Breastfeeding mothers have healthier babies, take fewer sick days, are happier at work and are more loyal to the company. They also return from maternity leave faster, and are less likely to leave and need replacement. Breastfeeding supportive companies also get good press. It makes business sense to support breastfeeding.  

If “Daisy Cow” (as she is nicknamed by callous colleagues) saves the company $75,000, enough to pay another salary, then shouldn’t Daisy be supported by programmes that teach employers how to support breastfeeding employees? And shouldn’t more employees be aware of the benefits that each breastfeeding co-worker provides?  

While most advertising promotes the mother-child bonding benefits of breastfeeding, with images of peaceful infants in the soft and loving arms of Madonna mothers, there’s scant bonding involved between a woman and a breast pump. Pumping is ignored despite this being the reality facing most mothers committed to breastfeeding while they work.

Some mothers may have the good fortune of being able to bring their baby to work, or having a crèche in the workplace, or close enough to enable breastfeeding to continue, but these scenarios are less common. 

I wonder how many employers know what “pumping” or “expressing” even is? 

If you don't know, I will pause to explain: a breast pump is a device you can use to express milk from the breast. As a breastfeeding body makes milk on demand (typically every couple of hours), the milk fills the breasts. This creates engorgement and discomfort, and if the milk is not removed from the breast it can cause illness. The breast pump is used to extract the milk when the baby is not able to drink directly. Pumping cannot comfortably or hygienically be done in a toilet or bathroom. While some women feel comfortable being around others while pumping, most don't. Once milk is expressed, it then needs to be stored in a fridge and the pump needs to be cleaned and put away.

I wish all employers could educate themselves, before their employee had a need to ask for accomodations. Know without asking, to make space for it. Make room for your employee - the bathroom is not appropriate for preparing infant food. Be kind. Be open. Ask how things are going. Treat this as an important concern – there are significant health risks for breastfeeding mums if you ignore their needs. She's more than a mum too, she's your employee. She's part of your company, your business success. 

All these messages and more should and must be given to employers if breastfeeding rates are to increase in this country.  We cannot leave that explaining to the desperate first time mum searching for a solution on Facebook. She is coming to terms with life with a new infant. When she frames a conversation, it is inevitably going to be personal and emotional.

Just think, when your employee comes to you, she is talking about her baby, her breasts, her body, her needs. Things you do not usually discuss with your boss in such intimate detail.

That's why the conversation with employers must be educational and general. Surely there is space in the Government's breastfeeding promotional budget for this?

In the absence of a sustained and well resourced public health initiative, we'll do our bit. Download our free guide, to help you walk through that conversation with your employer. 

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