Return to Work: How can we make it better for mothers in 2019?

This post is an excerpt from HelpMe Feed’s white paper report. To access the full report, please visit https://helpmefeed.org/whitepaper-work

At the HelpMe Feed Foundation, we’re advocates of a mother’s right to breastfeed for as long as she wants. Breastfeeding has significant health benefits, both for mother and baby.

Despite this, global breastfeeding rates are still low; although breastfeeding initiation rates are high, 60% of mothers in the USA do not breastfeed for as long as they want to

When we look at why this is, one key issue becomes clear: the challenges faced by mothers returning to work. Today, mothers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force

Two months after giving birth, mothers report that their return to work is their top reason for ending breastfeeding

Improving how employers create space for maternal care is a pressing issue if we are to improve global breastfeeding rates. And to do this, we need to continue to design and promote effective ways to accommodate breastfeeding moms at work.

Breastfeeding at work: The challenges

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends breastfeeding for at least the first 12 months, with exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months. The average paid maternity leave in the US clocks in at just 12 weeks. But in many cases, it’s not even provided; the USA is the only advanced economy that does not mandate paid time off for maternity leave. Most working mothers return to work during that 12-week period.

Even in countries where maternity leave is mandated, women often choose, feel pressured or are financially obligated to go back to work earlier.

For those mothers keen to preserve their breast milk supply this means that they will have to express milk at work. Pumping can be challenging at the best of times — it’s sometimes painful, generally noisy, and always time-consuming. But managing it at work adds another layer of difficulty.

What can employers do?

Employers have an important role to play in supporting breastfeeding mothers and providing paid maternity leave is just one piece of the puzzle. And as with most corporate responsibility practices, the more employers who successfully support breastfeeding mothers, the more workplaces will eventually follow suit. For these reasons, it’s important that employers begin to:

  • Provide practical support to help women pump – a private lockable room, a private or locked fridge to store breast milk.

  • Give mothers genuine flexibility and time to ensure they can express milk whenever they need to.

  • Make lactation support options available and promote these to all staff members.

  • Encourage all staff members to support breastfeeding friendly policies and practices.

  • Consider the needs of mothers who travel for business: breastfeeding moms who travel will either have to ‘pump and dump’ or choose to stay home, potentially damaging their career prospects.

  • Provide paid maternity leave. The more time a mother has at home with her baby the more likely she is to continue breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is too often considered to be the mother’s responsibility, but its societal impact means that we all need to play our part. Employers have a real opportunity to help mothers continue breastfeeding for as long as they need and will benefit by retaining talented staff, avoiding litigation and leading a more productive, inclusive team.

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