Supporting breastfeeding in the workplace and beyond

World Breastfeeding Week 2023 highlights the importance of workplace protections in promoting breastfeeding. It is equally crucial to strengthen public health systems worldwide to improve maternal and child health

August 03, 2023 by Peoples Health Dispatch
World breastfeeding week
(Photo: UNICEF African Union)

This year’s World Breastfeeding Week focuses on measures and policies to support breastfeeding among working women. The organizations involved, including the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, are appealing to governments and employers to create breastfeeding-friendly workplaces for new mothers returning to their jobs.

While there has been some progress in the global breastfeeding rate, which now stands at 47%, achieving the 70% goal set for 2030, as stated by WHO and UNICEF leaders, requires significant efforts. Introducing paid breaks, dedicated breastfeeding spaces for workers, and a minimum of 18 weeks of paid maternity leave could contribute to achieving this goal. Currently, many countries offer shorter paid maternity leave, while some, like the United States, have none.

Securing a remunerated maternity leave of at least six months and other support policies in the workplace, according to the United Nations agencies, would have a strong impact on promoting breastfeeding, leading to better health for both women and children.

However, breastfeeding policies in the workplace need to be complemented by other measures to make breastfeeding the norm rather than the exception. Organizations like the International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN) and experts in global public health continue to highlight concerns about the role of the commercial milk formula industry in influencing child nutrition. Aggressive marketing strategies by formula producers continue to sway new parents and even health workers into believing that formula-based diets are superior to breastfeeding, despite the well-documented health benefits of breastfeeding.

Watch: World Breastfeeding Week 2023: Is formula milk a real alternative?

It is essential to consider breastfeeding rates in the context of overall women’s and maternal health. Recent reports by the United Nations Population Fund (UNPF) and the US-based organization March of Dimes stress the inequalities in access to healthcare for pregnant women across geographical areas and demographic groups. For example, the maternal mortality rate for women and girls of African descent in Latin and North America is higher than that of other women.

In the US, the maternal mortality rate among Black women is almost three times higher than that of other groups. Despite maternal health indicators in the US being extremely worrisome, there has been little action to address the problem. In fact, there was a 4% decrease in hospitals with labor wards between 2019 and 2020, according to March of Dimes. Some States, like Alabama and Wyoming, lost as much as a quarter of their maternal health care capacities.

These changes have disproportionately affected Black and poor women, particularly in rural areas, where access to skilled health and support workers, who play a role in educating and promoting breastfeeding, is limited. As of May 2022, there were only 13,640 Certified Nurse-Midwives for the entire US, despite its yearly 4 million births. Receiving advice from obstetricians and other health workers is also challenging, and with many women losing health insurance coverage only months after giving birth, the dire state of maternal health in the US is not surprising.

To ensure better health for women and popularize breastfeeding, it is crucial to expand access to quality care. Establishing strong public healthcare systems that prioritize the wellbeing of children and women, along with having enough health and support workers who can counter the harmful effects of lobbying by the commercial milk formula industry, remains critical for promoting breastfeeding as much as good workplace policies.

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