Breastfeed for longer or share parental leave? This shouldn’t be a choice couples have to make

Photography: Fran Jorgensen Photography

Ernestine Gheyoh Ndzi, University of Hertfordshire

When it introduced legislation for shared parental leave in 2015, the UK was widely praised. The move allowed partners to split the entitlement to state financial support that is available to couples until their child’s first birthday.

But two years later, uptake has been disappointing. Although there are no official figures, a 2016 survey of 1,000 human resource professionals found only a fifth of organisations had received requests from male staff about shared parental leave.

Financial cost, concerns over negative perception in the workplace, difficulty in understanding shared parental leave, and a lack of awareness have all been identified as reasons why parents are not taking up the entitlement.

Little, though, has been said about breastfeeding. But my ongoing research surveying mothers about shared parental leave has found that most breastfeeding mothers find the idea of going back to work while their partner takes leave impracticable.

Six months recommended

Breastfeeding has been described as one of the most important contributors to infant health and child well-being. The World Health Organisation recommends that mothers breastfeed their babies exclusively for the first six months because of the range of health benefits that it offers to both mother and child.

These include a reduced likelihood of mothers developing breast or ovarian cancer, and children’s enhanced psychosocial and emotional development. In the UK, the government has offered mothers in some parts of the country a £200 voucher to encourage them to breastfeed until their baby turns six months old.

Barriers in the workplace have been identified as the biggest hindrance to breastfeeding mothers who choose to return to work early after childbirth. Returning to work often means mothers must constrain their breastfeeding, which can mean some giving it up altogether.

Research has shown that early return to work by breastfeeding mothers negatively affects the initiation, frequency and duration of breastfeeding. This explains the noted decline in the number of breastfeeding working mothers who returned to work early after childbirth. One US study also found that if a mother plans to return to work within three months, there is a 16-18% reduction in the probability she will start breastfeeding.

This means that if mothers want to breastfeed for longer, some choose to delay their return to work. Of course, it is possible for mothers to express breast milk at work and store it in the fridge or freezer, but there may be issues of hygiene in storing the milk to guarantee that it is safe for the child’s consumption. Working breastfeeding mothers will often need to go to the breastfeeding room or toilet (if there is no designated room for breastfeeding mums) to express the milk to avoid engorgement, which is when the breast becomes overfull and painful.

See next page for what employers can do…

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