As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week 2023, we at Lactamo have conducted our annual breastfeeding survey, aligned to this year’s official theme of “Enabling Breastfeeding: making a difference for working parents”. Garnering hundreds of responses from 13 countries, the survey offers a comprehensive global perspective on the struggles that breastfeeding parents face especially when returning to work. The valuable insights from our survey highlight the pain points of women, and sadly shows that more support and advocacy is critical.
Expectations vs reality: The breastfeeding paradox
A significant 76% of respondents initially believed that breastfeeding would be a breeze. However, the reality was starkly different, with 78% of mums finding it challenging.
This contrast between perception and reality underscores the critical need to provide women with the right solutions and support, both to enable them to actively prepare for breastfeeding (much like they prepare for their birth) and to empower them after birth in navigating these associated issues (for example low milk supply) to lessen the impact these have on both mothers and babies.
“Every $1 invested in breastfeeding generates $35 in economic returns” WHO, 2019.
Maternity leave and the transition back to work: A balancing act
Our survey shed light on the profound impact of maternity leave policies on breastfeeding practices. A concerning 41% of respondents did not receive at least six months of paid maternity leave, potentially pressuring many to return to work sooner than they would have preferred.
Women need adequate time and support to breastfeed. Women with less than 3 months of maternity leave reported shorter breastfeeding duration than those with 3 or more months of leave. This finding takes on added significance when we consider the World Health Organisation's recommendation that all mothers exclusively breastfeed for six months. When paid parental leave policies fall short of this guideline, it creates a challenging disconnect for new parents.
We found that the transition back to work came sooner than expected for many respondents. A notable 24% returned to work within the first 0-6 months, while 38% made their return after 6 months, and 26% after a year. This transition, however, was not without its challenges. Over half of the respondents (53%) voiced concerns about managing their breastfeeding routine and the support provided by their employers.
Workplace challenges remain the most common reason for women to never breastfeed or to stop breastfeeding earlier than recommended. This was supported by over three-quarters of mums (78%) from the survey reporting a negative impact on their breastfeeding journey when they resumed work. Many ended up stopping or significantly reducing breastfeeding. The primary issues faced were a drop in milk supply and engorgement, highlighting the need for greater support and resources for breastfeeding parents in the workplace.
The role of employers: Fostering a supportive environment
A workplace needs adequate breastfeeding facilities to become a breastfeeding-friendly workplace. Only 42 countries mandate workplace breastfeeding facilities.
Nearly half of the mums from our survey (48%) felt unsupported by their employers in their breastfeeding journey upon their return to work. This lack of support can exacerbate the challenges of balancing work and breastfeeding, potentially leading to premature weaning.
One respondent emphasised the need for employers to understand the unique needs and challenges of breastfeeding mothers, stating,
"Employers need to do a better job of understanding the position and requirements of a breastfeeding mum and better support them in being successful."
Many respondents highlighted the need for better education for both employers and mothers returning to work. They suggested that understanding the nuances of managing breastfeeding around work schedules and meetings could make a significant difference.
Flexible working arrangements were also a common theme. Respondents suggested options such as work-from-home arrangements or providing a safe and private place for mothers to express milk. One respondent shared her personal experience,
"I had to delay my return to work as my daughter did not take a bottle and was too young to go all day without breastfeeding."
This highlights the diverse needs of breastfeeding mothers, particularly those who are directly feeding versus those who are expressing milk.
The introduction of "pump breaks" was another suggestion that came up, indicating the need for workplaces to accommodate the practical aspects of maintaining a breastfeeding schedule while at work."
Looking ahead: Advocating for change
The start of motherhood is one of the most vulnerable times of our lives. How can we improve this, and support mums?
The results of our survey underscore the urgent need for societal and workplace changes to better support breastfeeding mothers. As outlined in the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy, employees have the right to request flexible working arrangements, and employers can only refuse on reasonable business grounds. Moving forward we would love to see more of this available in the workplace to ensure mums are supported to meet both their feeding and career goals.
At Lactamo, we're committed to empowering mothers with knowledge, support, and innovative solutions to make their breastfeeding journey as smooth as possible. We advocate for increased education, resources, and support for breastfeeding mothers in all environments, including the workplace. As we look forward to World Breastfeeding Week 2024, we're hopeful for a future where all breastfeeding mothers feel supported, informed, and empowered, no matter their circumstances.