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Breastfeeding and Work: Let's Make It Work!

Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General - Family, Women's and Children's Health

5 August 2015

As a young doctor working with refugees in the former Yugoslavia and Iraq, I attended births and delivered babies. Access to many of the basic tools, equipment and medicines needed to ensure that newborns are delivered safely and survive their first day - the most dangerous day in life - was just a dream.

Flavia Bustreo, Assistant Director-General - Family, Women's and Children's Health.

Even in these precarious situations, most babies did have access to the single most important health intervention: breastfeeding.

Breast milk is the original "super food."

We are increasingly discovering its amazing properties and health benefits. It is the best source of nutrition for babies; there is no substitute that can replicate it, which is why WHO recommends breastfeeding the exclusively for the first 6 months of life.

In poor countries breastfeeding is estimated to prevent nearly half of all diarrhoeal episodes and one third of all respiratory infections. In many countries, breastfed babies have fewer infections and face a reduced risk of sudden infant death syndrome compared with babies who are fed breast milk substitutes. Breastfeeding creates an emotional bond between mother and child, and is linked to positive psychomotor and social development of the child. Breastfed babies are also less likely to develop type-2 diabetes, or be overweight or obese as adults. Breastfeeding has a positive lifelong impact on health.

But despite all the evidence, only one third of babies worldwide are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months of life, and these rates have not substantially improved in the past 20 years. Naturally, every parent wants the very best for their child's health, but unfortunately women around the world do not always get the right information, nor the support they need to start or continue to breastfeed.

Family friendly policies in the workplace

This week is World Breastfeeding Week. This year's theme, "Breastfeeding and work. Let's make it work!" is particularly important not just for breastfeeding mothers, but also for those who can make a difference to women around us in our workplaces.

While great progress has been made in making workplaces more family friendly, worldwide the majority of women still face many obstacles to continue breastfeeding their babies when they return to work. Workplace support is a major factor that influences a woman's decision to quit or continue breastfeeding.

As an employer or manager, it doesn't cost much to support your breastfeeding staff. There are a few easy steps you can take, including:

  • ensure that nursing women are able to take short breaks and have flexible working hours, so they can breastfeed or pump milk; and
  • provide a suitable space in the office or nearby which is easily accessible to do this.

Breastfeeding takes very little time out of an employee's day and lasts for such a small period over a woman's entire career. When working women are supported and given some flexibility at this special time in their lives, they are likely to be more committed and happier at work. It's a win-win situation that builds loyal employees, gives babies the best source of nourishment available, and benefits society as a whole.

It's not always easy to juggle breastfeeding with the demands of work but the support of employers and work colleagues can make all the difference. As we work to achieve the ambitious goals of the Global Strategy for Women's, Children's and Adolescents' Health, we can start with one of the most effective, low-cost health interventions that benefit women and their newborns, with an impact that will last over their lifetime.

Governments, labor unions, employers and work colleagues all have a role to play to protect, promote and support working women to breastfeed.

Put simply, it's the right thing to do.