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Ways to Ensure Breastfeeding and Lactation Inclusivity in the Workplace

I’ve often wondered how or why people in the workplace receive concessions for when they return after a bout of sickness but rarely for when they return after giving birth. For example, employers and colleagues “understand” what a person goes through with a broken leg, showers the person with gifts or allowances that assist in producing optimal work.  

Contrarily, for newborn mothers, similar sentiments are not usually offered upon their return from maternity leave. It is important to note that the period for maternity leave varies based on a country’s labour laws. Some countries have no policy for maternity leave, some barely consider newborn mothers, while others include the needs of the mother and newborn in their labour laws.  

For some reason, it is expected that a natural and life-altering occurrence is an easy feat so the newborn mother is expected to bounce back and execute their tasks without tending to the needs of their newly tapped bodily functions.  

Yes, new mothers need to pump milk and breastfeed regardless of if their job places them behind a desk or in the boardroom. So, in the same way that employers will move the person with a broken leg to the ground floor with all their tools to function at work, a newborn mother will need bespoke work conditions that facilitate her journey into motherhood with allowances for her to still do her job at her best.  

Mothers in the workplace are expected to be the best employees and they are also expected to be the best mothers. But, how can they be top performers without support in the workplace? That sounds like a measurement by impossible standards. 

You speak about being truly inclusive. Well, newborn mothers deserve inclusivity, and facilitating a bespoke workspace for her is right up that alley. Without true inclusivity, disengagement becomes part of the day-to-day functions. This often leads to avoidable departures, poor outputs for work, and it may lead to poor health. 

Simeca Alexander, Jamaican-based Lactation and Breastfeeding Specialist agrees.

Breastfeeding and Lactation Specialist, Simeca Alexander

“Society has evolved to a place where women now leave their homes and are also breadwinners. Gone are the days when all a woman had to do was be a homemaker. We can all agree that women have contributed greatly to a vast number of advancements and are impeccable forces to reckon with in the workplace,” she says. “However, many mothers choose to give up a dream career because of the rigidity in the workplace preventing them from carrying out their full potential of being a mom,” she continues. 

How breastfeeding plays an important part of the equation 

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) states that children should be exclusively breastfed for the first six months of their lives. In fact, they share that the best practice of increased breastfeeding “could prevent 823,000 deaths of children under 5 years globally and 20,000 deaths in women with breast cancer each year.” 

In support of the WHO and PAHO guidelines, Ms. Alexander puts forward that the benefits of exclusively breastfeeding are remarkable. “However, maternity leave is hardly mandatory and women are expected to return to work as if giving birth isn’t a life changing event. They bring forth life, nurture and are responsible for the future generation. Let us facilitate this transition.” 

The International Labour Organization’s developed Maternity Protection Convention No. 183 of 2000 and Maternity Protection Recommendation No 191 of 2000 states that there should be “at least 18 weeks of paid maternity leave for new mothers as well as paid breastfeeding breaks and hygienic facilities in the workplace.” 

As you can imagine, 18 weeks is the recommended baseline but it is hardly enough as it is two months shy of the recommended six.  

So, while it is understood that businesses have their overheads to meet, find other ways to ensure that your companies, employed mothers, and their newborns all benefit. 

Ms. Alexander shared some tips (as guided by organisations such as the ILO and WHO) that business leaders may take into consideration to facilitate an inclusive workspace for employees who have just given birth. 

Tips to creating or fostering an inclusive workplace for newborn mothers in your company 

1. Foster a breast-feeding culture in the workplace. Start with educating staff. Some people still believe that it’s okay to have cleavage shown but seeing a breastfeeding mother is unacceptable in the workplace. 

2. Have a private room/space in the office where mothers can pump. Make the space comfortable and safe. Mothers should not have to pump in a bathroom 

3. Have a refrigerator. This facilitates the proper storage of breast milk that babies can get later on. 

4. Be sensitive to off days as returning to work is very emotional and be willing to lend a shoulder or listening ear and ease the parent back into work and hectic assignments. Consider, as well, a therapist for newborn mothers in the office. 

5. Be flexible with work from home in case of an emergency or an off day as described above. 

6. If there is an insurance plan, prompt the mother to add the new family member and facilitate this as quickly as possible, also any claims that might have been incurred while on maternity leave. If none currently exists, get the ball rolling. 

7. Allow intermittent breaks outside of lunch time for the mother to pump (usually 10-15 minutes every 2-3 hours should be enough). 

8. Prepare a welcome-back or congratulatory gift (it can include gifts that will be more geared towards mom and maybe a gift certificate for wipes and diapers) 

9. The often downplayed part to the equation of newborn parents is that of paternity leave! Fathers should be recognised as equal parents and should be considered in the relevant points above. A father whose right to paternity leave is observed positively impacts the return-to-work transition for the mother.  

  • Bear in mind that partnerships with 2 mothers or 2 fathers should also be considered in these steps.  

To zone in at the company level, it must be said that regardless of country labour laws and policies, some companies work to ensure that their employees receive the support required as newborn mothers – so that everyone wins (the newborn, the mother and the employer). 

Inclusion In Action – Honourable Mention 

Take a page from companies such as Google and Marriot International. Both companies are among a few who provide lactation rooms for their staff who are parents of newborns. The rooms are reportedly private, spacious, comfortable, and allow newborn mothers the free will to fulfill their roles as mothers without judgement and discomfort. Additionally, the rooms are equipped with tools to facilitate the breastfeeding process. Kudos to them. 

As reported by Elle, Google and Marriott International are among some companies who acknowledge the need to embrace inclusivity for their staff. The lactation rooms are part of the solution. A number of companies in the service industry provide this type of support for their staff.  

This is what we call putting words into action. Though we’ve mentioned two companies, note that others exist. If your company, regardless of geographical location, does not yet offer support to breastfeeding mothers, look into it.  

Review your work policies and consider adding some of the shared tips to truly operate as an inclusive business. Make note of how you may make the workplace more inclusive for breastfeeding and lactating mothers. It works out better for everyone.   

Sources and resources: 

Benefits of Workplace Support for BreastfeedingPAHO  

Breastfeeding support in the workplaceUNICEF 

Sustaining a Breastfeeding-friendly workplaceILO and UNICEF 

International Labour Standards on Maternity ProtectionILO 

The Best Lactation Rooms Across AmericaElle