Breastfeeding may be an uphill task for women at work, but mothers and their employers can work together to make breastfeeding at work possible.
JUST after breastfeeding her newborn daughter, US swimmer Dara Torres, 39, jumped off a starting block and swam her way to qualify for the Beijing-bound Olympic trials in the year 2006.
“I had literally just breast-fed my daughter, got on the blocks and got ready to swim,” said the now 41-year-old mother and Beijing Olympics silver medalist in her recent interview with Time magazine.
As one of the most veteran of women in the pool, she may have set the achievement benchmark higher for Olympic women in the future. But when she managed to juggle breastfeeding with competitive sports, she made a good example to prove that when there is a will to breastfeed, there is a way.
Closer to home, professional engineer Ir S. T. Kua would attest to the difficulties of being a woman and a nursing mother working in a largely male-dominated world.
At work, her job involves working in her office and visiting construction sites to check on ongoing projects. At home, she goes about the duties of a loving mother to her seven-year-old son and two-year-old daughter, both of whom she breast-fed exclusively.
“I breast-fed my son exclusively for about seven months when I was 30 and my daughter for about one year when I was 35.
“Many women do not want to breast feed as they think that it is troublesome, especially those with a full-time job. But if you have the willpower, it is possible,” says Kua, who expressed milk whenever she could, even at construction sites.
With the increasing number of women joining the work force annually, women today are more likely to go through motherhood with a full-time career. Therefore, it is imperative that adequate support be given to working mothers, who have to balance nursing with work responsibilities.
To recognise this, this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, which ended on Aug 7, aims to create awareness and inspire families, healthcare practitioners, communities, governments, civil society and the work place to provide support to a breastfeeding mother with the theme “Mother Support: Going for Gold”.
Going back to nature
For an action that should be a basic human instinct, it shouldn’t take so many awareness campaigns to convince women of the benefits of feeding our young with breast milk. However, things that come naturally are not always easy.
Breastfeeding can be trying at times, especially when a mother does not have the support she needs. And if you take misinformation, lack of awareness and the perfectly honed marketing skills of infant formula manufacturers into account, new mothers are often thrown into a land of the unknown, trying to make sense of the heaps of fact and fiction thrown at them.
Often, all it takes is for a concerned relative to ask, “Are you sure you could breastfeed and keep your full-time job at the same time?” to shake a new mother’s confidence.
But thanks to breastfeeding advocates and health organisations’ initiatives worldwide, over the past decade, women like Torres and Kua are increasing in number.
According to Unicef (The United Nations Children’s Fund) statistics, global levels of continued breastfeeding are relatively high at one year of age (76%), despite the increasing participation of women in the labour market.
Nevertheless, the existing rates are still far from ideal. For instance, less than half of infants are still breastfeeding at two years of age (40%), and 38% of all infants born in the developing world are exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of life, while less than 60% receive complementary foods when they should.
Currently WHO/UNICEF recommends babies to be breast-fed exclusively for the first six months; and breastfeeding should be continued together with other appropriate complementary foods up to two years and beyond.
In Malaysia, the breastfeeding levels are relatively low compared to other countries in the region. According to the 3rd National Morbidity and Health Study in 2006, only 14.5% of mothers breast-fed their child for the first six months.
Feeding while on the job
Now comes the question: Is it possible to breastfeed while on the job? The answer is “yes”. It may not be easy, but with a little persistence, creativity and lots of patience, you can actually make it work.
Kua, for instance, hand-expresses her milk whenever she could and keeps her milk in an icebox wherever she goes. “Hand-expressing is easier on the breasts, and it is the cheapest way to express,” says Kua.
“And, you can never forget your hands when you go to work!” she quips, adding that manual pumps and electrical pumps may be painful and tricky to use.
Although she had to put up with some teasing from her male colleagues, her resolve to give the best to her children gave her strength to continue.
In the office, Kua uses vacant meeting rooms to express and keeps her milk in the pantry fridge. “When I am on the go, I will try to find a place to express, even if it meant borrowing site-offices and public washrooms at times,” she laughs.
“Sometimes, when I have no time to express my milk, it dribbles out and wets my clothes. So, I have to wear nursing pads and excuse myself to express more often,” she said.
At home, Kua diligently dates her milk kept in freezer-safe plastic bags, puts them in the freezer, and went about breastfeeding her baby directly. Before she goes to sleep, she thaws a few packets of frozen milk in the refrigerator to prepare for the next day.
When she goes to work, her mother-in-law will warm the milk to feed her baby. “At first it was quite difficult, but after a while, it became routine,” she explained.
“During maternity leave, breastfeeding is not a problem at all, but breastfeeding while working is challenging,” said Kua.
Having an understanding superior made it easier for her to breastfeed. “One of my bosses was very understanding. During late night meetings, I was often allowed to go home early,” she added.
While talks between unions and the Human Resource Ministry have been underway to extend the current state mandated 60-day maternity leave with pay, the Selangor state government had approved a proposal for a 90-day maternity leave and 14 days paternity leave. Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim said the state is now working on guidelines to implement the proposal.
“Ninety days is too long, because some mothers would like to go back to work,” commented Lau Kim Peng, a mother of two. Malaysian Employers Federation (MEF) Executive Director Hj Shamsuddin Bardan thinks so too, albeit in an “economic” way.
We are very supportive of breastfeeding ... In fact, we are well aware that Singapore has extended their state-mandated maternity leave to 84 days, but bear in mind that they are using a different approach, where the government is bearing the cost of the extra 24 days maternity leave, while currently in Malaysia, employers pay for the 60-day maternity leave, Shamsuddin said.
According to his calculation, assuming that all women in the labour force had an average salary of a worker in the manufacturing sector (about RM1,500 per month), an extra 24 days maternity leave for all working mothers will cost employers a total of RM629 million, inclusive of the cost of overtime payment needed to have the work done.
Therefore, we should not take this lightly ... Unless we restructure our social security, it is not feasible for us to increase the number of maternity leave that we have, Shamsuddin said.
But breastfeeding advocates maintain that mothers should be given a choice. In a recent forum on working women and breastfeeding, a technical working group with government, academia and NGO representatives submitted a memorandum to the National Population and Family Development Board (LPPKN), calling for a 120-day maternity leave with options for mothers to work from home. Breastfeeding corners and/or childcare centres at the work place are also among the recommendations.
“It may be costly now, but in the long run, we will benefit ... Moreover, employers can save on the employee’s reduced emergency leaves when their children are sick,” said Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC) Women’s Committee Chairperson Noorlaila Aslah. She added that employees should be more assertive to make their employers understand their needs.
While studies in the US have found that by increasing breastfeeding rates, they could save tremendously on health care costs, such studies have not been done in Malaysia.
“Rather than taking action when the population dwindles (like in Singapore and Japan), why not act now?” Noorlaila said.
We should move away from the perception that caring for our children is just a woman’s duty in life. Bringing up children is also a full-time job, and a mother’s efforts should be recognised because they are nurturing the future work force, Noorlaila noted.
“Fathers should also help out mothers by helping them with the housework and taking care of the baby while the mother is resting.”
Instead of in-house childcare centres at the work place, Shamsuddin suggested that more local community childcare centres managed by well-qualified individuals be set up. As an incentive, employers can be given tax relief for subsidising their employee’s childcare costs.
Companies can, however, provide facilities for mothers to express their milk, said Shamsuddin. “All you have to do is allocate a small corner to give nursing mothers their privacy and a refrigerator to store their milk.”
A curtain, a chair and a table in the pantry with adequate washing facilities is good enough, and it would take only about RM3,000 to set it up, Shamsuddin added.
He noted that companies now are more accommodating too – they can arrange for their employees to work staggered shifts and flexible hours.
“In the developed world, the trend is moving towards people working from home offices. New ideas like these should be explored further for the mutual benefit for both employee and employer.
“Hopefully, we could come to a win-win solution where both employee and employer’s interests are taken care of,” he added.
Going for gold
Inspired by her ability to breastfeed while working full-time, a colleague who just gave birth came to Kua for advice. “Now, she (her colleague) expresses her milk, stores it in a freezer, and travels from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh every weekend with her icebox to replenish her “breast milk stock” and directly breastfeed her baby,” Kua beamed with pride.
While there are certain contraindications to breastfeeding, women should try their best.
“It is still best to give breastfeeding your best shot and not assume that you could not breastfeed,” said Director of Breastfeeding Information Bureau Malaysia Siti Norjinah Moin.
“Time management is also very important for mothers. They have to manage their time – to work, to breastfeed, and not to forget, to look after their husbands as well,” she added.
“It really helps to have moral support when you are breastfeeding,” says Kua. “But you have to be strong, and you have to have the desire to breastfeed your baby.”
1. Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk, American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement, Organizational Principles to Guide and Define the Child Health Care System and/or Improve the Health of All Children: Section on Breastfeeding; aappolicy.aappublications.org/cgi/reprint/pediatrics;100/6/1035.pdf(13 Aug 2008)
2. Economic Benefits of Breastfeeding, United States Breastfeeding Committee; www.usbreastfeeding.org/Issue-Papers/Economics.pdf(13 Aug 2008)For more information about breastfeeding, you can visit the Breastfeeding Information Bureau Malaysia website at www.bibmalaysia.org. You can also contact the Breastfeeding Information Bureau at 03-4107 3678 or email@example.com for further assistance.
Making it easier ...