Cape Town – While breast milk is considered to be the best nourishment for newborns, the reality of a working mother’s bond with her child is said to be affected by the lack of enthusiasm employers show towards investing in lactation rooms.
This comes after University of the Western Cape researchers discovered problems with maternity protection for many new mothers in South Africa, citing that these problems made it challenging for everyone (especially women and employers) to know what protection can and should be provided around the time when a woman gives birth.
According to the International Labour Organization (ILO), a comprehensive maternity protection includes health protection at the workplace, however, Dietitian and UWC PhD candidate Catherine Kotze said that for many women, this is not the reality.
“A big challenge is that many employers do not know what their responsibilities are in terms of maternity protection provision and therefore do not know what best labour practices are. The reality is that many women either go to the toilet to express their breastmilk or, if they are lucky enough to have a private office, may lock the door and express in their office, with the fear that someone may interrupt them. These are not situations where breastfeeding is being supported.
“A lactation room is important to provide a small and private space where a woman can comfortably breastfeed her baby or express her breast milk to take home so that her baby can be fed expressed breastmilk by the caregiver while the mother is at work. A mother with a small baby is already experiencing a lot of stress in balancing work and caregiving responsibilities. For workplaces to support these women by simply providing a small space where women can breastfeed or express assists with reducing the anxiety of one of the many tasks that new mothers are responsible for. A mother who knows that her baby is receiving the best possible nutrition and care (through breastmilk) will not be constantly worrying about her baby at work.
Agreeing tha having a private space is important for mothers, Sally Raine from La Leche League South Africa added that research found that women who receive breastfeeding support at their workplaces tend to be more productive, despite taking additional time to express for their babies.
“Breastfeeding has a dose dependent effect. It never loses its importance. The longer a mother breastfeeds the greater the protection for both her and her baby’s future health. Longer duration of breastfeeding has been linked to protection against breast, ovarian, uterine and thyroid cancers in women. WHO recommends that breastfeeding continues for at least two years for optimal health of mothers and babies.
“Workplace environments with work related deadlines add to the stress of being a working mother. Stress has the ability to negatively affect and inhibit the hormone oxytocin, which can slow down the flow of milk and make expressing it challenging. The key to success with breastfeeding is support, so if a mother feels that her company is supportive and encourages her to express at work, she’ll also be more relaxed and expressing will likely be easier for her than a mother who doesn’t feel supported in her work environment,” said Raine.
Looking at the challenges that companies are faced with, Interior designer, Karabo Mathibedi said that breastfeeding rooms are often seen as a waste of money and many businesses neglect its importance, however businesses need to start imagining themselves as a new mother.
“For working mothers, it’s critical that workplaces designate lactation areas with the necessary amenities. Companies should invest in interior designers who are aware of the requirements for a lactating room, since well-planned lactation rooms can provide mothers control over their surroundings, allowing them to customise it to their comfort needs and unwind. Some mothers prefer to breastfeed while they work, under the condition that they have access to a phone and a workspace.
“Everyone involved, including your company, benefits from breastfeeding, not just the employees themselves. Both mothers and their children will benefit from lower medical insurance claims, improved productivity, decreased absenteeism among female employees, and other business benefits,” said Mathibedi.