Breastfeeding provides all children, boys and girls from rich and poor countries, with the healthiest start. From the first hour of a baby’s life through age two or longer, breastfeeding protects against illness and death. Among its myriad benefits, breastfeeding prevents malnutrition, decreases the risk of childhood diseases, supports healthy brain development and is associated with better school performance, longer school attendance and higher earnings as an adult. Furthermore, it protects maternal health and is environmentally friendly. World Breastfeeding Week is celebrated annually around the world to promote the universal value of breastfeeding.
This year’s World Breastfeeding Week theme is Breastfeeding and Work: Let’s Make it Work! to highlight the importance of supporting working mothers to breastfeed. Women with children are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce. Balancing work and family is an important priority for them. When women return to work, time and space to breastfeed or express breastmilk during work hours helps them continue to give their best efforts to their employers and the best food to their baby.
Ensuring adequate maternity protection and time and space for breastfeeding makes economic sense. Working mothers who breastfeed tend to take less time off from work because their children are less likely to be sick. Women who have adequate maternity benefits value their employers, leading to increased productivity, job satisfaction, and loyalty.
Employers increasingly see the financial value of investing in breastfeeding. In Malaysia, for example, the country would gain 2.9 per cent GDP annually if 70 per cent of working-age women participated in the labor force. By endorsing a family and child-friendly workplace, employers not only contribute to the health and wellbeing of mothers and children, but contribute to achieving socio-economic development.
Many companies are taking bold steps and seeing the rewards. In 2007, Google revised its policy on maternity and family care by offering 5 months of fully paid maternity leave to all female employees and offering all employees with a new child $500 for anything from hiring a lactation expert to buying diapers. Following these changes, Google saw a 50 per cent drop in the number of women quitting, bringing company’s female attrition to the same rate as males. Sansiri PLC, one of the largest real estate companies in Thailand, has a private well-equipped breastfeeding room with hygienic breastmilk storage facilities. The company has made it easy for employees to bring their young children to work by establishing, in partnership with UNICEF, an onsite playroom. In Kenya, the Better Business Practices for Children is a joint initiative between the government, Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) and UNICEF. It supports breastfeeding through workplace sensitization, protected time and designated private areas for mothers to express breastmilk or breastfeed their babies. Safaricom, one of the country’s leading mobile phone service providers and a member of KEPSA, provides comprehensive maternity insurance cover, flexible working hours and state-of-the-art workplace breastfeeding facilities.
Global support for breastfeeding is rising but more needs to be done. The large majority of the 830 million women workers in the world do not have adequate maternity protection, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. Women working in the informal, seasonal or part-time economy are particularly vulnerable and often face even greater barriers to continue breastfeeding and are virtually excluded from protection. It is time to galvanize support from government, private and public sector employers, and communities to support working women to breastfeed.
Werner Schultink is Chief of Nutrition based at UNICEF HQ in New York.