The Star: Back at the office, nursing mums are struggling

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Credit: The Star (Malaysia)

To mark World News Day on September 28, 2022, the World News Day campaign is sharing stories that have had a significant social impact. This particular story was shared by The Star (Malaysia). 

With the return of workers to the office following the easing of Covid-19 restrictions, many nursing mothers are struggling to cope.

Working mums who found it convenient to breastfeed their babies while working from home now find it a struggle to express milk while dealing with long hours at the office.

These are among the challenges cited by nursing mothers in a survey done by The Star in conjunction with World Breastfeeding Week from Aug 1-7.

A total of 555 breastfeeding mothers took part in the survey.

Commenting on the findings, World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (Waba) director Datuk Seri Dr Anwar Fazal urged employers to create Breastfeeding Friendly Workplaces (BFWs).

A BFW is a workplace that provides an appropriate and friendly environment for their breastfeeding employees to express milk.

Anwar said it was important to keep in mind that babies need nursing even when separated from their mothers who are at work.

“Every time a mother is not able to breastfeed her baby, she needs to replace it by expressing her breastmilk.

“It is important for breastfeeding employees to continue to express while away from their baby to ensure the milk supply is maintained,” he said.

He said nursing mothers who continue expressing milk will have a lower risk of experiencing blockages or mastitis, which may result in illness and the employee requiring time off.

Among the survey respondents, 75% are full-time working mothers, 14% are housewives and the remaining 11% work part time.

The majority or 68% of the respondents were between the ages of 30 and 39.

More than half of the respondents said they were involved in expressing breastmilk to feed their child.

Respondents said the biggest problem they faced when breastfeeding were related to physical challenges in breastfeeding (27%).

These include insufficient supply or oversupply, breast inflammation, blocked milk ducts or mastitis, and others.

The next major issues were pumping and storing breastmilk, as well as a lack of lactation rooms and other facilities for breastfeeding.

Nursing mothers also said they faced a lack of support from their family or at the workplace.

Most of the nursing mothers suggested that more baby-friendly facilities be set up in public places to help improve their breastfeeding experience.

They also called for more flexibility at work so they could have time to express milk, as well as longer maternity leave.

The respondents also suggested dedicated facilities be set up at workplaces for nursing mothers to express their breastmilk.

The survey revealed that a total of 33% of the respondents said they had breastfed for up to two years or longer.

However, the majority of those who had breastfed for less than 18 months said they intended to stop within the next six months.

When asked whether the Covid-19 pandemic had affected their breastfeeding journey, two-thirds of the respondents said it had not.

However, out of 201 mothers who said the pandemic did have an impact on their breastfeeding journey, almost 70% said the pandemic actually made their breastfeeding journey easier due to being able to work from home.

Others cited experiencing loneliness, lack of support, anxiety and confusion when breastfeeding during the pandemic (17%), as well as receiving insufficient knowledge or guidance from healthcare providers (11%).

Meanwhile, working mothers, especially healthcare workers, who had increased workload and inflexibility at the workplace due to the Covid-19 pandemic, said their milk supply was affected as they did not have time to express milk when at work (2%).

This scenario may become more common as nursing mothers go back to the office.

Anwar said nursing mothers need time, space and support at work so they can continue breastfeeding.

He called for internal work policies that are in line with the National Breastfeeding Policy to be implemented at the workplace to support mothers who wish to breastfeed.

He also suggested that flexible working hours or schedules be made available to allow mothers to take appropriate breaks to express their milk.

“Employees could incorporate extra time such as coming in early, staying late or others to replace time taken for breastfeeding activity.

“Such a flexible and breastfeeding-friendly policy would allow mothers to be more at ease, better focus on their work without added stress or distractions and express more successfully.”

Anwar said workplaces should have a lactation room that is accessible, safe, secure, and clean.

“Mothers should have access at least two to three times daily, at three-hour intervals, for an average of 15 to 20 minutes at a time.

“A clear schedule is essential to enable mothers to plan lactation times, obtain uninterrupted access to the facility, and avoid conflicts with other mothers who need to use the lactation room.”

According to the United Nations Children’s Emergency Fund (Unicef), infants who are not exclusively breastfed could be at a substantially greater risk of death from diarrhoea or pneumonia.

“Breastfeeding strengthens infants’ immune systems and may protect them later in life from chronic conditions such as obesity and diabetes.

“Yet despite all the potential benefits, only two fifths of infants 0–5 months of age worldwide are exclusively breastfed and only two in three children aged 12–23 months receive the benefits of breastmilk,” it said on its website.