Enabling Breastfeeding: Making a Difference for Working Parents

31 July 2023

Each year, the world celebrates World Breastfeeding Week, a global campaign aimed at promoting and supporting breastfeeding. This year, the focus is on “Enabling breastfeeding: making a difference for working parents.” This theme presents a golden opportunity to demonstrate that breastfeeding is not just a matter of concern for a mother and child; breastfeeding is also a great way to support economies. Specifically, breastfeeding and the use of human milk have economic benefits and reduce healthcare costs by decreasing the incidence of illness and the need for medical interventions.  

Families who breastfeed save money on formula and medical expenses, leading to improved financial stability. Supporting breastfeeding in the workplace is good for employers too, as it promotes employee satisfaction, loyalty, and retention. 

To make breastfeeding successful though, families need to be able to combine breastfeeding with work. Implementing family-friendly policies that support breastfeeding and provide resources for parents and caregivers yields long-term benefits, including healthier and better-educated children, a more skilled workforce, and sustainable growth. 

To promote breastfeeding support, UNICEF has identified four critical policy areas: 

  • Sufficient paid leave
  • Support for exclusive breastfeeding
  • Accessible childcare and early education
  • Child benefits and adequate wages.  

These policies ensure that parents and caregivers have the necessary time, resources, and services to recover from childbirth and establish breastfeeding.  

When they return to work, no matter how old their infant is, mothers need support. This can include things like breastfeeding rooms, paid nursing breaks, and an enabling breastfeeding environment and culture are low-cost interventions that contribute to improved breastfeeding rates, job productivity, and employee retention. These support mechanisms go beyond simple infrastructure changes and can include awareness raising, employment protection, and non-discrimination. 

By examining the economic benefits, healthier children, and improved sleep associated with breastfeeding, we can appreciate the profound impact it has on the lives of working parents.  

Economic Benefits: Breastfeeding offers substantial economic advantages for families, employers and society. Employers can benefit from supporting breastfeeding in the workplace. By providing adequate breastfeeding breaks and comfortable facilities, employers promote employee satisfaction, loyalty, and retention. Working parents who are supported in their breastfeeding journey are more likely to return to work after maternity leave, reducing recruitment and training costs.  

The International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) emphasizes that breastfeeding helps reduce healthcare costs and fosters economic growth by enhancing the overall well-being of the population. As a result, breastfeeding reduces the risk of childhood illnesses, leading to fewer medical expenses and decreased healthcare utilisation. Additionally, families who breastfeed can save money on formula, feeding equipment, and medical expenses, contributing to financial stability. All of these improve a community’s wellbeing and wealth.  

Healthier Children and Parents: Breastfeeding plays a crucial role in promoting the health and well-being of children. As highlighted in ICM’s position statement, breast milk is a complete and balanced source of nutrition, containing vital antibodies that protect infants against infections and diseases. Breastfed children have a lower risk of respiratory infections, ear infections, allergies, and obesity. By supporting breastfeeding in the workplace, employers indirectly contribute to the well-being of their employees’ children, fostering a healthier future generation, and can potentially reduce the time off working-parents need to care for sick children.  For parents, this can contribute to more successful work-life balance in the critical period of early childhood and improve their mental health.  

The protective effects of breastfeeding extend well beyond infancy, contributing to better long-term health outcomes for children, but also for the long-term health of breastfeeding mothers. An article published by National Library of Medicine in 2007 has revealed that most relevant studies published from the second half of 2001 to 2006 suggest that breastfeeding is one of the best ways to protect against later obesity, type 1 diabetes, coeliac disease, inflammatory bowel diseases, childhood cancer and even later cardiovascular risk factors. 

Improved Sleep: Breastfeeding offers a significant advantage to working parents by contributing to improved sleep patterns for both infants and parents. Breast milk contains sleep-inducing components, such as tryptophan and melatonin, which help regulate sleep-wake cycles. Breastfeeding at night can soothe infants, helping them fall back asleep faster and promoting longer periods of uninterrupted rest. This translates to better sleep for parents, allowing them to be more alert and productive during working hours. By recognizing the importance of breastfeeding-friendly policies in the workplace, employers can support their employees’ sleep and overall well-being. This, in turn, positively impacts productivity, reduces absenteeism, and enhances work-life balance for working parents.  

In order for all these amazing benefits employers need to follow the recommendations of international organisations, including the International Confederation of Midwives (ICM) and the World Health Organisation (WHO), all agree that exclusive breastfeeding for six months, followed by continued breastfeeding for two years alongside appropriate complementary foods, is the optimal approach for feeding infants and young children. In addition to all the benefits supporting breastfeeding has for employers, increasing breastfeeding rates to near-universal levels could prevent 823,000 deaths in children under the age of five. 

This year, World Breastfeeding Week serves as a global platform to raise awareness and promote the benefits of breastfeeding, particularly for working parents. By understanding the economic benefits, healthier children, and improved sleep associated with breastfeeding, we can appreciate the significance of enabling families to combine breastfeeding and work. Supporting breastfeeding through comprehensive workplace policies benefits both employees and employers, creating a win-win situation for all.  

As we celebrate World Breastfeeding Week, let us strive to create an environment that enables working parents to continue their breastfeeding journey, making a positive difference in the lives of families and communities.