Breastfeeding Breaks: Good for Mom. Good for Baby. Good for Business

1 Aug 2018 - 14:45


By Lori Lake (The Children's Institute), Chris Scott and Max Kroon

Advocacy Committee, Department of Paediatrics and Child Health University of Cape Town


Doctor Lyndall Gibbs, a pediatrician working at Red Cross Children's Hospital prepares to breastfeed her newborn baby. Photo courtesy of Red Cross War Memorial Children's Hospital.


Every August we take time to celebrate women – the care that they provide within family, their strength and leadership in communities, and their achievements in business and science. Yet despite women having equal rights, employers in South Africa still have a long way to go in supporting women’s efforts to breastfeed and give their children the best start in life.

The 2016 Lancet Breastfeeding Series presents compelling evidence that investing in breastfeeding is the most effective single intervention in reducing child mortality.  Breastmilk contains a potent mix of vitamins, minerals, nutrients and antibodies specifically tailored to meet an infant’s changing nutritional needs. It aids digestion, strengthens immunity and helps protect the baby from infections such as diarrhoea and pneumonia. These protective effects extend into adulthood reducing the risk of chronic health conditions such as diabetes, overweight and obesity.  In addition breastfeeding protects women’s health promoting healing after birth, burning calories, and reducing the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

Exclusive breastfeeding is also a smart investment in children’s education as it is associated with higher IQ and academic performance and economic productivity.  And it provides a foundation for healthy relationships by promoting early attachment and responsive care-giving, reducing stress and strengthening the bond between mother and child in the critical first 1000 days of life.

Last but not least, it makes good business sense – helping to promote gender equality, reduce absenteeism (as breastfed babies are less likely to get sick than those receiving formula), and improve staff loyalty and retention. In other words, breastfeeding is good for mom, good for baby and good for business.  

Yet very few mothers in South Africa exclusively breastfeed for the first 6 months of life as recommended by the World Health Organisation – with only 1 in 4 babies exclusively breastfed by the time they are 4 – 5 months old.  And these low exclusive breastfeeding rates contribute to the high prevalence of malnutrition, diarrhoea, pneumonia and under-five mortality in South Africa. 

So what can employers do to facilitate exclusive and extended breastfeeding and help mothers give their children the best possible start in life? The two most precious ingredients are time and privacy.

There are a number of laws and policies in place designed to support breastfeeding women in the workplace, but implementation and enforcement remain poor. For example, the Basic Conditions of Employment Act guarantees women four months unpaid maternity leave, which means many mothers have to return to work even earlier in order to earn an income. And the stress of returning to work and trying to express milk during working hours can diminish the mother’s milk supply placing additional strain on both mother and baby. For this reason the South African Code of Good Practice on the Protection of Employees during Pregnancy and after the Birth of a Child stipulates that employers should make arrangements for employees to have two 30-minute breaks a day to breastfeed or express milk for the first six months of their child’s life.  Yet most women – and their employers – are unaware of the Code and their legal entitlements.  And without breastfeeding breaks, women are forced to choose between keeping their job or breastfeeding their baby.

Working women who choose to breastfeed also face additional challenges. Chief among these is a place where mothers can safely and comfortably express breastmilk during working hours. Instead many women are forced to hide in toilets and broom cupboards in order to express, and face the embarrassment of their colleagues, male and female, walking in on them when they are at their most vulnerable. This is a violation of women’s rights to dignity and privacy, and their children’s rights to health and optimal nutrition.

Each breastfeeding room has a comfortable chair, natural light and a heater to take the edge off the winter chill.

The Advocacy Committee in the Department of Paediatrics and Child Health is therefore delighted to announce the opening of a breastfeeding room for staff at Red Cross War Memorial Children’s Hospital. Thanks to the combined efforts of hospital management and the Children’s Hospital Trust, the two rooms now provide a space for all women working at the hospital to breastfeed or express milk – with comfortable chairs, a kettle, sink and fridge to enable mothers to clean equipment and store milk safely.  We hope that the breastfeeding room at Red Cross will inspire other businesses – including the Department of Health and University of Cape Town – to actively support working mothers and ensure that women have the time, space and privacy they need to continue breastfeeding.


Support breastfeeding women in the workplace

Women are entitled to 2 x 30 minute breaks in order to express milk or breastfeed their baby. So create a more flexible work schedule so that women can express milk when they need to. If possible, give mothers options to extend maternity leave, work from home, or work part-time so that they can continue breastfeeding, or provide child care on-site or close to work.
If possible, set aside a small, private room for breastfeeding. No woman should be expected to express milk or breastfeed in the toilet. This is not a clean and healthy environment in which to prepare baby food. Breastmilk can be refrigerated or stored in a personal cooler.
Develop a clear policy and guidelines
Take active steps to create a supportive work environment. Develop a clear policy and extend provision of breastfeeding/expressing breaks from six to twelve months to support mothers and infants as they make the transition to solid food.
Support from staff and management
Educate staff about the policy and the benefits of breastfeeding. Enlist the support of supervisors and co-workers. Inform pregnant women about their rights – to maternity leave and breastfeeding breaks - so that they can plan ahead and continue breastfeeding.