We have long known that breastmilk is the best food for babies and has many benefits for mothers as well. For decades, 170 countries have celebrated World Breastfeeding Week, an annual campaign to raise awareness about how important it is to defend, promote, and support exclusive breastfeeding during babies’ first six months, together with continued breastfeeding alongside complementary foods until children are at least two years old.
But despite awareness efforts and greater knowledge about breastfeeding, today less than half of infants and young children aged 0–36 months worldwide are breastfed. In the Americas, only 38% of children are exclusively breastfed until six months, ranging from 2.8% in Suriname to 68.4% in Peru.
These rates are influenced by multiple factors, one of which is mothers’ experiences when they return to the workplace. What are the best strategies for this transition?
Making breastfeeding possible
Just as no worker would choose to eat their lunch in a toilet stall, a mother cannot be expected to express milk for her child in a bathroom. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over half a billion working women lack access to maternity protection measures such as paid maternity leave and paid breaks for breastfeeding or expressing milk once they do return to work. We also know that only 20% of countries require employers to provide paid breaks and dedicated lactation spaces so that breastfeeding mothers who return to work can continue to breastfeed.
To make breastfeeding possible, countries must promote and advocate for essential maternity rights, which are maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks—and preferably more than six months—and a space for lactation in the workplace afterwards.
For the vast majority of women, returning to work is not optional: it is essential to their family’s livelihood. But without the right support, a mother will have no choice but to give up breastfeeding and switch to commercial milk-based formulas and other breastmilk substitutes. The decision whether to breastfeed or not thus depends less on the mother’s preferences and more on the support she receives from her country—via legislation—and her employer—through its policies.
The benefits of breastfeeding, beyond mother and baby
Breastmilk provides all the energy and nutrients that an infant needs for the first months of life, and it continues to provide up to half or more of a child’s nutritional needs during the second half of the first year, and up to one third during the second year of life, according to the WHO. Scientific evidence shows short-term benefits for breastfed children, like reduced mortality due to infectious diseases, as well as long-term effects, like better performance on intelligence tests, a lower probability of being overweight or obese, and even less risk of diabetes later in life.
Mothers also see clear benefits, beyond the bond that breastfeeding helps them create with their baby. In the short term, it helps them recover from childbirth, reduces their risk of postpartum hemorrhage and postpartum depression. Furthermore, women who breastfeed have a lower risk of type 2 diabetes, breast and ovarian cancer, and other diseases compared to those who do not breastfeed or breastfeed less.
Breastfeeding also has advantages that extend beyond mothers and babies:
- reduced costs for healthcare systems, as it helps prevent diseases;
- environmental benefits, as it requires no packaging or shipping;
- and increased job satisfaction, reduced absenteeism, increased loyalty and retention, and an improved corporate image when organizations provide support so their employees can continue breastfeeding when they return to work.
Breastfeeding has many benefits for society, which is why it is important to continue raising awareness so that more countries and organizations put maternity rights on their agendas. Only then will breastfeeding mothers be able to return to work without facing an impossible dilemma.
Are you breastfeeding and about to return to work? Have you already done so? Tell us about your experience!