Well, I have some good news for you. You might not recognise it as good news at first, but I’ll explain why it is. Last week, the HSE announced that it was going to provide lactation breaks for all breastfeeding mothers who are returning to work after maternity leave, up to their child’s second birthday.
HSE staff are now entitled to a one hour lactation break over the course of a working day, this can be taken as one chunk or broken into smaller chunks over a shift.
You may not be lactating or in ownership of a breastfeeding infant and feel this is not relevant to you, but this is good news for everyone because this new entitlement means that more babies and mothers in Ireland are likely to breastfeed for longer. In doing so, they will lower their risk factors for many future health conditions, thereby saving us all money in the long term. See! Good news!
When a mother comes into contact with a virus or bacteria, her body will make antibodies to protect itself and these antibodies get passed to the baby through breastmilk. This helps protect babies from chest, ear and tummy infections.
Less illness means less trips to the GP and less hospital admissions. In the long term, breastfed babies have a lower risk of obesity, as do their mothers. We all know what a strain obesity places on our health system so reducing the risk is a positive step.
Returning to work after having a baby is a stressful time for many mothers. They fret that their baby will settle in childcare, that they will nap and eat for others. Many mothers find that their original aspirations of breastfeeding change when the realities of motherhood kick in. If they have had a challenging start to breastfeeding and it took some time to resolve issues and get in their stride then they often don’t want to stop breastfeeding after all the hard work they’ve put in.
Some mothers think they’ll have to “give up” breastfeeding because they have to return to work when, in fact, with a little workplace flexibility the breastfeeding journey can continue and help ease the return to the workplace anxiety that many mothers feel after maternity leave.
Research by the International Labour Organisation found that low-cost interventions such as providing lactation rooms and nursing breaks can improve workforce performance and retention. According to the Irish Congress of Trade Unions: “The provision of workplace support for breastfeeding through breastfeeding /lactation breaks may facilitate more new mothers return to paid work after childbirth. Thereby reducing recruitment and training cost savings for employers. As breastfed babies are healthier, there is a reduction in workplace absenteeism to care for sick children.”
Current legislation entitles women returning to work to breastfeeding breaks up until a baby is 26 weeks but many mothers don’t return to work till their babies are older than six months and can’t avail of these breastfeeding breaks.
The Department of Health and HSE have adopted WHO guidance recommending exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of an infant’s life. Thereafter it is recommended that breastfeeding continues, in combination with appropriate solid foods, up to two years of age and beyond.
The recognition that breastfeeding to two years of age and beyond is beneficial is now backed up by action that facilitates HSE staff to continue breastfeeding. As the State’s biggest employer this is a powerful message.
This provision has been in the pipeline for a long time, with stakeholder groups such as the National Breastfeeding Implementation Group, Irish Congress of Trade Unions and Baby Feeding Law Group strongly advocating for it.
A HSE staff census highlighted that areas such as nursing and management/administration will see the highest numbers of staff applying for lactation breaks. The HSE estimates about 535 out of 100,000, or about 1 per 200 staff will avail of the breaks on an ongoing basis.
Other employers also offer lactation breaks beyond the statutory requirement and it is important that mothers returning to work check with their HR departments about their company’s policy.
The HSE have sent a strong signal that breastfeeding is important and hopefully this entitlement will become standard in all workplaces with time or new legislation.
For mothers who don’t have breastfeeding-friendly workplaces, there is plenty of peer support from other moms in similar situations.
Breastfeeding support groups Cuidiu, Friends of Breastfeeding and La Leche League all offer support to help women manage the return to the workplace while breastfeeding. The Facebook Group “Back to Work and Breastfeeding (Ireland)” has almost 5,500 members. Clever tips about pumping at work, strategies for managing long shifts, and workarounds for less than desirable pumping facilities are offered by other mothers who have successfully managed the back to work and breastfeeding transition.