Breastfeeding and your rights at the workplace

As we celebrate World Breastfeeding week (1 – 7 August), Angelique Ruzicka looks at your rights as a mom of a baby, when you return to the workplace.

Unfortunately, when it comes to maternity leave we don’t get to spend as much time with our babies as some do in other parts of the world. In Finland, for example, expecting mothers can take their maternity leave seven weeks before their estimated due date. Then after the birth they get 16 additional weeks of paid leave through a maternity grant. Sweden is very generous. New parents are entitled to 480 days of leave at 80% of their normal pay. This is on top of the 18 weeks given to moms after which the parents decide to split the remaining weeks up however they choose.

Meanwhile, working South African mums are only entitled to a minimum of four consecutive months of maternity leave (16 weeks).  Many take at least one month of that leave prior to the birth, and then make their return to work when their infants are just around three months old. But this is problematic as often mothers haven’t stopped breastfeeding by then. Exclusive breastfeeding of an infant from birth to six months is what is recommended as optimal nutrition by the World Health Organisation (WHO).  Therefore, the only way that working new mums can meet these important health standards is if they can breastfeed or express breast milk for some months at their workplaces.

There are plenty of benefits to creating a healthy environment where moms can express or breastfeed in peace. Cath Day, registered dietitian and spokesperson for ADSA (The Association for Dietetics in South Africa) points out: “There is a vast body of scientific research that has shown that breastfeeding, as exclusive nutrition in the first six months and then as a supplementary food for two years and beyond, also protects and benefits the physical health of the mother; while impacting positively on her emotional well-being as she forms the essential bond with her new child. It is clearly in the interests of the employers of child-bearing women to protect, promote and support them during the times when they are breastfeeding because companies need their employees to be healthy and optimally productive.”

ADSA recommends that businesses formalise their support of breastfeeding in the policies, standards and practices of their employee wellness programmes. Sadly, returning to work after maternity leave rates as one of the top reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding their babies before they should.

But companies can do a lot more to ease the transition from maternity leave to work and provide a private and healthy environment where women can express so that they can continue to give breastmilk to their babies.

What the law says about breastfeeding and the workplace

Here’s what can and should be done:

  • Uphold the Law – Under the Basic Conditions of Employment Act moms are, up until their babies are six months old, entitled to two, paid for 30-minute breaks every work day for breastfeeding or expressing milk.
  • Know and promote the benefits of breastfeeding – “It helps to have employers who are knowledgeable about why breastfeeding is so important and a commitment to protecting, supporting and promoting breastfeeding in the workplace,” says Cath Day. “As part of the employee wellness programme, registered dietitians can be engaged to make presentations to all staff on the advantages of a breastfeeding-friendly work environment and how to make it happen in your company.”
  • Provide the place – In the past, some moms have had to put up with expressing in public toilets, or their car, to express milk at work because they have nowhere else to go. But nowadays many companies recognise that there’s a need for a secure and comfortable space for working mums to spend their 30-minute breastfeeding breaks.  Preferably, this private room should have a door that locks, comfortable seating, plug points for breast pumps and a refrigerator for the safe storage of breast milk. If your company doesn’t have such a space, don’t be afraid to request it.
  • Be flexible and adaptable – Part-time, flexi-time or temporary work-from-home plans can be very effective solutions for breastfeeding mums, and should especially be employed by companies who provide no proper facilities for the legal breastfeeding breaks in their workplace. Ask your company to consider this alternative if they can’t make any space available for expressing.
  • Offer child-care facilities – A number of progressive companies with a clear focus on employee engagement provide workplace child care facilities for the babies and small children of their employees. This is ideal for breastfeeding mums as they can more easily and quickly breastfeed their infants and need to express less milk.

“It is really important for South Africa as a country to transform to a culture of being breastfeeding-friendly in every environment,” says ADSA spokesperson Zelda Ackerman. “We have to consider the potential health burdens of being a country with exceptionally low rates of breastfeeding, and turn this trend around.  From the family home to the work environment to society at large, breastfeeding mothers need support.”

Breastfeeding at the workplace tips 

Zelda’s advises moms to do the following to ensure they can continue to breastfeed in the workplace and do so comfortably:  

  • Before your return to work, give yourself enough time to get to grips with finding the pump that works best for you and regularly expressing milk – and give your baby enough time to get used to bottle-fed breast milk. Time and practice will help you both to establish this as a stress-free routine before the big change up ahead.
  • Before returning back to work, build up a stock of breast milk at home – it can be refrigerated and frozen. Stored breast milk should always be dated, and you retain more nutritional quality if you refrigerate it immediately after you have expressed.
  • On your return to work, talk to your bosses so that they are clear about your breastfeeding goals and needs. Be clear about your legal right to two, paid 30 minute breastfeeding breaks each working day, and establish with them how this is going to work best for you and what accommodations you will need.
  • If you encounter resistance or lack of support in your workplace, get help rather than give up breastfeeding. Other working mothers in your workplace and HR personnel may help to raise awareness of the importance of your continued breastfeeding. External sources of help can include breastfeeding support organisations and registered dietitians.
  • You can reduce discomfort from engorgement and pace your two breastfeeding breaks optimally at work if you arrange your workday mornings so that you give your baby a good feed that ends just before you leave for work; and then breastfeed your baby again as soon as you get home. Co-ordinate this with your baby’s caregiver so that they don’t bottle-feed just before you get home.
  • Be patient and resilient. It’s not easy to keep up with breastfeeding, even in a modern world, but it is as important as it has ever been to both you and your baby.