Can Breastfeeding Truly Be Effective For Working Moms? By Toyin Onigbanjo & Ebele Ede

Oluwatoyin Onigbanjo is a child nutrition & gender advocate. She is the founder of Augustsecrets Ltd an indigenous child nutrition company providing healthier food options for young children. 
To mark #WorldBreastfeeding Week, she has this insightful article to share.

Folake is excited about the arrival of her new baby after being married for some years and having a blossoming career in investment banking. She plans to breastfeed her baby exclusively for 6 months as advised during her ante-natal sessions.

On settling down with her baby at home, 6 weeks down the line, she had to resume as an ad-hoc committee member on a project at work. The moment she began actively participating in the project meetings, she noticed a decline in her breast milk flow. She is worried that her baby lately is hungrier, and may lose weight, and now considering introducing formula to augment.

This is the reality of most new moms globally; the dilemma of keeping their jobs, growing their careers, managing gender roles at home, and effectively breastfeeding their babies. Research states that breastfeeding remains the best method for feeding a newborn throughout the first six months of life. For the first six months, breastmilk delivers a complete package of vital nutrients tailored to meet the needs of healthy, full-term infants and when combined with complementary foods from 6 month into the second year and beyond, it fosters an environment for optimal child nutrition, ensuring the best start in life.

Breastfeeding promises numerous benefits for both mother and child which includes lower risk of infection, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), cardiovascular disease in adulthood, reduced risk of cancers among mothers, amongst other benefits. According to global statistics, 72% hospitalizations resulting from diarrhea and 57% of respiratory infection -related admissions could be prevented through exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of life.

According to the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics, women account for 43.8% of the Nigerian workforce, yet very few of these women are able to exclusively breastfeed their babies or carry on with breastfeeding after they resume maternity leave. This is a major contribution the low rates of exclusive breastfeeding which stands currently at 29%, leaving 71% of Nigerian children missing out on the benefits.
Findings from mothers reveal that mothers get discouraged from exclusive breastfeeding due to fatigue, perceived milk insufficiency, worry about the effectiveness of breastfeeding for baby’s weight gain, difficulty combining household chores with breastfeeding, need to return to work after maternity leave amongst other reasons. This plethora of reasons are not uncommon with even moms who are stay-at-home moms, entrepreneurs and so on.

The theme for 2023’s World Breastfeeding Week is focused on breastfeeding and work. The theme is Enabling breastfeeding – making a difference for working parents. According to WHO, over 500 million women globally do not have adequate maternity protections in their national laws.
Nigeria’s maternity leave policy grants a 12-week maternity leave period for new mothers, and they are expected to resume their employment once this period elapses. This means that working women are expected to resume to work whilst exclusive breastfeeding is ongoing.

In the midst of this, juggling work and breastfeeding may be difficult for some mothers depending on their working conditions, gender-role ideologies, the support system available to them and the availability of help to overcome any difficulties they may encounter during the process.

Many women find it challenging to maintain a breastfeeding routine while dealing with long work hours, lack of privacy, potential criticism from colleagues, lack of knowledge on strategies to make breastfeeding work for them, limited access to appropriate lactation facilities at work amongst others. Mothers who aspire to continue breastfeeding may encounter feelings of stress and guilt in certain working environments that do not foster a supportive culture for this vital practice.

With all of these glaring reasons, how then are we able to achieve the target of 50% exclusive breastfeeding rate by the World Health Assembly by 2050?
In the nearest future, predictions show that more women would be working outside of their homes to support their families financially; this means that the rate of women in the workforce would likely increase.

This calls thus, for a rethink around the policies, awareness and sustainable support for making breastfeeding work for mothers in Nigeria, other parts of Africa and the world at large.
In spite of the solid evidence of the health benefits of breastfeeding for both mother and newborn, early breastfeeding discontinuation is widespread in many parts of the world. According to World Health Organization, Exclusive Breastfeeding (EBF) is described as providing infants with just breast milk from birth to 6 months of age, with no other liquids or solids, including water, except for oral rehydration solution or vitamin, mineral, or medication drops/syrups.

According to Alive & Thrive, the cost of not breastfeeding in Nigeria alone stands at $9 billion (N2.84 trillion) in addition to other burdens on the healthcare sector such as the associated costs of treatments, lost hours of productivity, transportation which amounts to 25% of the treatment itself.
What measures can organizations put in place to encourage a breastfeeding-friendly workplace?
Research indicates that breastfeeding does not hinder productivity. Flexibilities such as allowing women to breastfeed at work increases the likelihood of their long-term job retention, making it an effective strategy for retaining skilled workers, while possibly reducing the need for maternal sick leave.

According to surveys, only about 9% of organizations in Nigeria provide adequate support for nursing mothers in relation to breastfeeding and childcare.

Recommended Work Place Breastfeeding/Childcare Support:

Improved Awareness & Sensitization: Employers & Organisations need to review the HR policies relating to women to create an atmosphere that supports employees who breastfeed. Other team members can be placed on standby to cover up for breastfeeding moms when they take breastfeeding or pumping breaks at work to ensure they productivity and guilt free breastfeeding break sessions.
In addition, workplace support programs like lactation education can be made available to pregnant and breastfeeding parents at work.

Lactation Rooms & In-Office Creche Services: Clean and safe private rooms with access to fridge for storing breast milk should be made available for breastfeeding moms.
This need not be too big or expensive for the company to afford.

Mental Healthcare covered by benefits scheme: Postpartum depression remains a real situation amongst young mothers, especially as the strain on women to provide financial support to their families increase. It is essential that mental health coverage is included as the Human Resource Departments consider these real-life situations aside the regular medical issues under health insurance packages.
Trade Unions: Advocacy and awareness can be advanced further through trade unions including the rights of women at the forefront of their activism. Breastfeeding is a national assignment and the duty of everyone.

Extended Maternity Leave periods: There are additional issues plaguing women during and after childbirth than is less spoken about, some of which would affect breastfeeding rates. For instance, new moms who are struggling with personal issues such as the loss of their partners, insufficient spousal support, optional single motherhood and so on. Recommendations for the extension of maternity could be as much as 18-20 weeks.

Paternity Leaves: Since breastfeeding requires a lot more support for working moms, it would be helpful if paternity leaves are observed and extended. Fathers need to be there for their partners to provide physical and emotional support as this goes a long way.

Flexible working hours: The popularity of the work-from-home (WFH) and hybrid work system is no longer news. Whilst some companies may already be thinking of rescinding their decisions of the work-from-home, it could be beneficial to have rethinks and more flexibility for nursing mothers as a form of support for their breastfeeding goals.
Policy makers should ensure there is a lactation policy in place for employees returning from maternity leave, so that employers can know how best to support breastfeeding moms and also help breastfeeding moms know wat to expect when returning to work.

In addition, infant & young children’s food products that are breastmilk subtitutes should be adequately labelled to rank breastfeeding as the most important source of nutrition for young children. This must primarily include an advocacy statement for exclusive breastfeeding before 6 months in their customer communication.

In the midst of this, we must not forget another segment of working mothers that may often be neglected; moms who work from home and those who are full stay-at-home moms.
They require just the same support as those who work outside of home as the burdens of childcare and domestic care lies largely with them. They need to be supported by family members and friends.
Conclusively, employers, policy makers and society can support breastfeeding by creating more awareness and dispelling the myths around it. This would help more mothers get support on combining breastfeeding & childcare with their careers, which ensures the wellbeing of children at large, their present and future health.

Alive & Thrive. Benefits of Breastfeeding in Nigeria.
Ogunba., B., O.2015. Effect of Maternal Employment on Infant Feeding Practices in Southwestern Nigeria. Food Nutrition Sciences Vol.06 No.07(2015), Article ID:56087,7 pages
The CDC Guide to Breastfeeding Intervention
WHO & UNICEF. 2003. Global strategy for infant and young child feeding. Fifty fourth world health assembly.
WHO. 2009. Global Strategy for Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) Model Chapter for Text Books for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals. World Health Organization, Switzerland.

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