It’s no surprise that when it comes to anything to do with women’s health, there’s a completely dizzying gap in knowledge and support. The expectations vs reality of breastfeeding is a major part of this, as so many mums would know. There’s a lot more to consider than you expect, and plenty of bumps in the road.
World Breastfeeding Week extends an opportunity to educate communities and empower parents on the breastfeeding journey. It raises awareness on the importance of breastfeeding to the wellbeing of both mums and their little ones, and tackles the roadblocks that can get in the way.
The initiative opens up really important conversations about how breastfeeding connects with sustainability, healthcare, the economy, and as of this year, workplaces. But before we get into that, you should probably know how it all began.
The history of World Breastfeeding Week
The campaign started in commemoration of the 1990 Innocenti Declaration on the Protection, Promotion and Support of Breastfeeding, which was created by participants at the World Health Organisation and UNICEF policymakers’ meeting on “Breastfeeding in the 1990s: A Global Initiative.”
The declaration recognised the importance of breastfeeding, and the need to stamp out any obstacles to accessing it within the health system, the workplace and the community. A big priority was providing women with proper resources and education to support their breastfeeding journey.
From there, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) was formed as a network of individuals and organisations devoted to protecting, promoting and supporting breastfeeding worldwide. The first World Breastfeeding Week campaign had lift-off in 1992, and has since been celebrated annually in the week of the 1st-7th of August.
What’s the theme of World Breastfeeding Week 2023?
Each campaign has a theme that underpins its focus, and this year it’s “enabling breastfeeding: making a difference for working parents.”
Workplaces have a key cultural role in the accessibility of breastfeeding for parents, from paid leave options to in-office resources and accommodations for a supported return to work. But there’s a huge gap here, one which this year’s WBW theme is determined to expose.
The workforce obstacle to breastfeeding
Between shifting cultural views and added pressure from the cost of living crisis (we’re all feeling it) there’s been a big jump in new mums going back to work. According to the Australian Institute of Family Studies, the year 2021 saw 32% of mums with babies aged under one year still be employed, compared to just 5% in 1991.
That’s a hefty difference. It also means new hurdles for breastfeeding parents as they figure out how to make it all work with the demands of their job.
A new survey by Lactamo sheds light on exactly this, revealing that three-quarters of participants reported a negative impact on their breastfeeding journey when they returned to work. In fact, many had to stop breastfeeding altogether.
Why? Workplaces just don’t have enough resources to support these mums. There are only 42 countries that mandate workplace breastfeeding facilities, and even so there’s a vast lack of support from employers. Not having the right resources can lead to new mothers having a drop in milk supply and engorgement, which could cause premature weaning. Hence having to cut their breastfeeding journey short.
The World Health Organisation recommends that all mums exclusively breastfeed for six months, so any parents resuming work early need proper support. And that’s not a small group either. The Lactamo survey says 24% of its respondents returned to work in the first 0-6 months, whilst 38% came back after 6 months and 26% after one year.
Over half of those participants voiced concerns about managing their breastfeeding and the support provided by their employers. It’s pretty alarming stuff, and stresses a hole in resources that workplaces need to improve on.
How can this change?
This week’s theme is driven to promote breastfeeding friendly workplaces, because it’s totally doable and a great investment in children and women’s health. It’s literally the gift that keeps on giving.
The big-ticket item to achieving better support is giving mums more time through adequate paid maternity leave. Several studies spotlight that mothers with less than 3 months of maternity leave report a shorter breastfeeding period than those with 3 or more months of leave.
Having flexible work arrangements is also major, giving new mums the privacy and comfort of breastfeeding in their own home. If workplaces are able to create safe and quiet spaces for breastfeeding, that’s a big win too. Bonus points for adding in things like a comfortable seat, flat surface, access to an electrical outlet, and a fridge to store the expressed milk in.
Bringing in “pump breaks” at work is a great practical solution to managing breastfeeding with a tight work schedule. It’s also important for the mum’s health so that she can express away from her baby. And it sucks that we even have to mention this, but these breaks should really be paid.
Workplaces should develop a written policy on breastfeeding so that there’s consistent and fair messaging that supports the needs of new mums. It also makes the topic easier to approach at work, so that there can be open and comfortable conversations (and less stigma).
What can I do?
If you, like so many new mums, are in this tricky position, know that you actually have the right to breastfeed at work, according to new additions under the Fair Work Act. Have a conversation with your workplace, and if you run into trouble speak to your HR department or the Fair Work Commission.
In terms of supporting the World Breastfeeding Week campaign, there are a bunch of events happening, both online and in person.
The Australian Breastfeeding Assosciation is hosting a free “Work and breastfeeding” online workshop on Tuesday, the first of August, from 7:30-9pm Sydney time. It’s designed for breastfeeding mums returning to work, and goes through tips and options for managing work and breastfeeding.
They are also running an “Ask me anything” event on their Instagram account all week, where they’ll answer questions on your rights at work, parental leave, and managing the transition back to work.
You can find local workshops and meetups supporting breastfeeding mums on their website too, so make sure to have a look!
Use this week as a window to sharing in your community about the challenges of balancing breastfeeding with work. Whether it’s online, with your friends or in your workplace.
We need to support new parents on every step of their return to work, and breastfeeding is an often overlooked, but non-negotiable, part of this.