It takes a society to breastfeed a child
Breastfeeding: it is all about a mother and a baby… Or isn’t it? It takes a village to raise a child… this ancient African proverb is also, indeed very much applicable for the breastfeeding dyad. So many women in the world struggle with breastfeeding, not because they don’t want to breastfeed their child, but while the circumstances just don’t work. The support just after birth in the hospital is successfully addressed through the Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative, and this alone has greatly improved the breastfeeding practices worldwide. But more and more we are recognizing that it is not enough to give individual support. Two important ways of support are maternity leave and laws that give the mother the opportunity to breastfeed their child at the workplace, or, when this is not possible, to give mothers the opportunity to pump their milk. More and more countries are on their way to give this support to the breastfeeding dyad.
In the last week the Bangladesh Government announced that it grants a maternity leave for 6 months with full pay twice for female government employees during the tenure of her service in order to make the recommendation of the WHO for 6 months of exclusive breastfeeding possible for these mother-child-dyads. Only a relatively small group of women will profit from this regulation, but it is a strong signal that one of the poorest countries of the earth is willing to invest in mother-child relations and breastfeeding.
In Germany there is an extended legislation about maternity leave and breastfeeding protection. A maternity leave of 8 weeks after the delivery (twins and premature babies 12 weeks) with full payment is granted for all employees (partly paid by the insurance, partly by the employer). Thereafter the government pays one year of “Parents time,” with 67% of the full salary. It is possible to take 2 further years off without payment but with the guarantee that the employer has to take the employee back at the same level she was working before. When the mother starts working again, legislation says, that employers need to give their employees the opportunity to breastfeed their babies or to pump their milk. They can use at least twice for 30 minutes during an 8-hour working day, and this time doesn’t need to be compensated for, and can’t be counted as resting hour. A suitable room (not a bathroom) should be available to breastfeed or pump undisturbed. Of course in reality it is a bit more complicated. Many women don’t know their rights, are afraid to bother their employers, or are afraid for the reactions from their co-workers.
And the breastfeeding wonderland Norway? It isn’t surprising that we have wonderful regulations here: 44 weeks fully paid maternity leave (or 52 weeks with 4/5 of the last salary). And after this there is still the opportunity to take a one year parents’ leave without payment, but with job guarantee.
Only when breastfeeding is normal, when society allows space for this normal behaviour, when children are part of our society and when breastfeeding is part of our society, it is possible for the majority of women to fulfil their own breastfeeding goals. Breastfeeding rooms should be as normal as restaurants and bathrooms, just rooms to serve normal needs of human beings.
In the German „Bundestag“, the governmental building in Berlin, lactation rooms are also available, as in the regional parliaments and all other governmental institutions. The mothers in principle can nurse anywhere, although last year there was something of an uproar when a member of the parliament took her child (4 months) in the parliament room. Some representatives protested, because the child was not “officially” a representative, but she was defended by the leader of her party, and she was able to attend the meeting with her child. And that is how it should be: mothers doing their occupation with accommodations for the child to accompany them. Just normal behaviour in a normal society.
It takes a society to breastfeed a child.
Elien Rouw is a physician in Bühl, Germany, and a board member of ABM
Opinions expressed on the ABM blog are those of individual members, not the organization as a whole.