When it comes to nutrition for babies, one thing is still largely agreed upon – breast is best. Breast milk contains antibodies which help protect babies against infections and diseases. Its proteins are better digested than those present in formula or cow’s milk. Calcium and iron in breast milk are also more easily absorbed by baby.
It’s no wonder then that many new mothers wish to continue breastfeeding even though they have returned to work after their maternity leave has ended. Last year, NTUC’s U Family launched Project Liquid Gold to raise awareness of the need to support working mothers in breastfeeding their babies in the early stages of their lives even after returning to the workplace. This is timely, if not a little late. After all, a survey that they conducted in 2013 revealed that almost 50 per cent of mothers who returned to work stop breastfeeding.
What’s stopping them? “Pumping at work was relatively tough for me,” says Alyssa Toh, 29, an accountant and mother to one-year-old Michael. “I had to pump four times at work because I was one of those mummies with a ‘small capacity’. My yield was not fantastic and my child is a milk monster!” she jokes.
While breastfeeding awareness has increased in general, there are employers who may view breastfeeding as a personal choice and who are not aware of how to support employees who wish to express breast milk at work. A Nursing Room Street Poll carried out in May 2013 on 286 women in the Raffles Place and Tanjong Pagar vicinity saw 65 per cent of respondents saying that there was no exclusive nursing space in their office.
However, some companies have stepped up their efforts to create space for breastfeeding mothers. DBS Bank has a nursing room at each of their three lift lobbies, while the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) extended its nursing room use to the staff of other companies within the same building!
As our workforce evolves, workplaces are moving to embrace a family-friendly culture to attract and retain talent. So how can employers make breastfeeding mothers feel more welcome at the office? Here are five suggestions from the team at U Family.
1. Find out what breastfeeding mums want and need
It is true that breastfeeding is a personal choice. Unfortunately, many employers think that mums should find their own resources if they want to pump at work. There are also employers who are unsure of what these mums need − and suggesting that they use the toilets as a lactation room, or giving a curt “don’t have” when mothers ask about a nursing room in the office.
What bosses can do: Find out what kind of support your breastfeeding staff may need. If your office doesn’t have a nursing room, suggest that mums may use a meeting room or an area that can be partitioned off to enjoy some privacy while they pump.
What mums can do: Take the initiative to approach your boss and ask for time and space to breastfeed (it can’t hurt!). Remind your boss that this is temporary − you will not be breastfeeding forever! − and perhaps offer to make up for the time spent breastfeeding by getting into the office earlier or completing certain tasks from home after office hours.
2. Provide a designated space to pump
Not all offices can afford to have a dedicated lactation room. But mothers need a clean and private space to pump. Toilets? They’re not ideal because of hygiene reasons. You wouldn’t have lunch there, after all. Alyssa’s office building had a nursing room. “It is the only nursing room in the area, so we set up a Whatsapp group for the mums who needed to use the room to pump, so that we don’t clash with one another’s timings.”
What bosses can do: It’s not difficult to create a simple nursing room out of little-used areas in the office. You can section off a small corner of a room with a portable partition. This will ensure privacy for breastfeeding mums. Empty meeting rooms can also be used. The space should also have:
- an electrical outlet
- a lock if it’s a room (for added privacy!)
- a sink nearby for mum to wash her pumping gear
If the space isn’t large enough to accommodate these, fret not. Providing a clean and private space for breastfeeding mums should be your first priority.
What mums can do: Be discreet. Put up a sign to let others know that the space is occupied when you are using it. When using the fridge or the freezer in your office pantry to store your expressed breast milk, label it well.
3. Offer mums a morale boost
A supportive workplace culture is one in which breastfeeding mums are confident of combining work and breastfeeding effectively. How can such a culture be put into place?
What bosses can do: Get supervisors and co-workers to exhibit a positive, accepting attitude towards breastfeeding employees. Demonstrate a commitment to creating a family-friendly workplace by introducing a policy statement assuring mums that they can combine work and breastfeeding. You will be providing them with a sense of job security.
What mums can do: If you have breastfed before, volunteer to be trained as a Workplace Breastfeeding Mentor. This training is conducted by the Association for Breastfeeding Advocacy Singapore (ABAS). Trained mentors will be taught how to support other colleagues who have to breastfeed at work. You will be starting a positive cycle!
4. Allow mums time to pump without worry
In case you weren’t aware, mums need to pump every three to four hours. Otherwise it can lead to breast engorgement or blocked milk ducts, which can be painful for her! But of course, the flexibility to take time to pump depends on the nature of the job.
What bosses can do: Provide breastfeeding mums with sufficient time to pump. According to U Family, the International Labour Organisation recommends two 30-minute breaks in each eight hour shift, in addition to normal breaks. If extra time is needed for milk expression, allow mums the flexibility to make up the time before or after their regular work hours.
What mums can do: Don’t let up on productivity. Senior Administration Manager Joyce Yap, 36, says that her boss was very considerate whenever she excused herself from meetings which would eat into her pumping time. “Effectively, I was still working on my laptop and answering calls during my pumps, which lasted about 45 minutes per session, so my peers and boss had no complaints,” explains the mother of two.
5. Make breastfeeding mums comfortable at work
Returning to work after maternity leave is a major transition point for mothers. Mums will be concerned about caregiving arrangements for their babies and how they can continue to provide breast milk. Here’s where colleagues at work can step in to lend a helping land.
What colleagues can do: A breastfeeding mum might worry about being seen as troublesome or unproductive at work as compared to her colleagues. Do her a favour by advocating a comfortable workplace culture for her to breastfeed in. Remind her to take her breaks and lend her your support by taking the effort to understand the challenges she faces at the workplace.
Joyce, who describes herself as being naturally assertive, was not really bothered by her colleagues’ reactions. “I believe mothers who are more introverted are more likely to suffer from insults and discouragement from some colleagues,” she says.
Alyssa and Joyce feel that more could definitely be done for mothers who need to pump at work. “I feel that the government could do better in this aspect. The Project Liquid Gold initiative is great in the sense that it gets companies to think about the ways it can improve the working environment for breastfeeding mothers,” says Alyssa. “But it needs more recognition.”
What if your colleagues are hostile towards your breastfeeding at work? Well, just keep calm and pump!
Companies can refer to the Employer’s Guide to Breastfeeding at the Workplace, a free resource jointly published by the Health Promotion Board, Singapore National Employers Federation, ABAS, and NTUC U Family.
Feature image courtesy of Jen Pan Photography