Why workplace breastfeeding may not be that cool

Breastfeeding at the workplace, young women say can be messy, a put-off for colleagues, and sometimes not so cool.

“I dropped out after two weeks   on feeling like colleagues were blaming me for declining targets,” says Ann Wanya, a sales executive with a busy software company in Nairobi.

Wanya, 26   a single mother nursing her firstborn says she felt guilty whenever busy colleagues keep making excuses to her clients.

She lost clients and with them some target based income; but also most times she says had to stay out of office social and bonding activities.

“Sometimes you might go into the lactation room and you end with milk all over your top, it is quite embarrassing when you have to go back to your desk in such a mess,” said a 28- year-old mother working with a major telecom in Nairobi.

 This mother was among 20 lactating women at the telecom firm who had volunteered for a study on their experiences with workplace breastfeeding.

The study, by Jercynter Kobala, appearing at the Semantic Scholar, an online repository says all the women were appreciative of the crucial benefits of comprehensive breastfeeding to both mother and child.

Challenges

However while welcome, Kobala says to most workplace breastfeeding came with its own challenges.

All the study participants, Kobala said expressed feelings of personal discomfort, either with the act of breastfeeding or when they left the child crying, unsatisfied, and still hungry in order to resume duty in time.

“They verbalized that they were all the time disturbed and depressed the whole day, which affected their work.”

Most, she says also expressed concerns over their work performance. “The whole breastfeeding demands compete with your time to clear the scheduled tasks, it can be tedious. I thought I would be psychologically settled by bringing the baby at work but seems like it is another set of distraction…my supervisor is not at ease with it neither am I,”  said a 34-year-old mother of two.

Kobala however blames society for women feeling embarrassed about either expressing milk or breastfeeding at the workplace.

“I am still eligible, but the whole business of breastfeeding at the office makes me feel unattractive,” says Wanya.

Sexual objects

This, Kobala hypothesizes is because in the larger Kenyan culture, breasts have often been regarded primarily as sexual objects, while their nurturing function has been downplayed.

“The perception of breasts as sexual objects may lead women to feel uncomfortable about breastfeeding in public including a common area for breastfeeding at the workplace.”

The take-up of workplace breastfeeding has been slow despite its promotion for almost a decade. The Ministry of Health, UNICEF, and the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) through the Better Business Practices for Children have been promoting workplace breastfeeding since 2010.

However, in 2017 it became mandatory that all employers provide space, time, and facilities for lactating employees to express milk or breastfeed.

“But, only a handful of private and public organizations, 37, have lactation rooms. Most breastfeeding mothers are forced to express milk in cars, washrooms, or empty boardrooms,” says Brian Barasa Masaba of the University of South Africa.

Masaba in a study published in the International Journal of Africa Nursing Sciences, says what Kenya is experiencing are teething problems and may be cured with time.

Sh0.6 billion incentive

To make sure it works, the Cabinet Secretary for Health Mutahi Kagwe says they are putting about Sh0.6 billion into a five-year workplace breastfeeding plan.

“We have developed the: “Implementation framework for securing a breastfeeding friendly environment at workplaces,” to support women employees practice optimal child feeding.”

The framework published by the ministry last month, shows just about 41 private firms are providing women with some kind of workplace breastfeeding support.

The Ministry says out of 66 private companies sampled in Nairobi, only a third had space for breastfeeding or expressing milk for their lactating employees.

To also capture workers in the informal sector the ministry says spaces for friendly breastfeeding will be established within public places including in churches, and public markets.

“Comprehensive breastfeeding is the best thing that will happen to our future generation of workers,” says Francis Atwoli, the COTU Secretary-General in the new framework document.

“COTU – K is committed to ensuring breastfeeding is protected, promoted, and supported.” But not everybody is buying into the idea with a significant number of women suggesting, “if you love us that much please extend maternity leave to six months.”

Six months is the recommended period for exclusive breastfeeding with gradual weaning for up to two years.  

Doubts

A recent study among flower farm and hotel workers in Naivasha by several US universities, the Kenya Medical Research Institute and Naivasha Sub-County Referral Hospital reported most women were not comfortable with expressing milk at the workplace.

“Workplace managers in our study expressed some doubts regarding mothers’ willingness to use workplace lactation rooms, especially for expressing milk,” says the study.

Flexible working hours, such as reporting to work later and leaving earlier to go and breastfeed was the most preferred option by lactating employees.

“We have the arrangements for those who probably want to work late, work normal hours,  or combine their lunch hour with their tea break, so they leave much earlier, which is quite popular,” said a manager.

The study published on 5th May 2021 in the  journal of Maternal & Child Nutrition also found  many mothers  and even fathers to prefer that maternity leave be extended to six months.

However, this may prove difficult as a national policy. In 2017, the Kenyan legislature voted down a bill to extend maternity leave to six months. Business lobbyists, who won the day, had argued that a longer leave was not economically sustainable.

But despite the challenges and more females joining the workforce, Alice Lakati of Amref International University says Kenya women are highly committed to breastfeeding their children.

By Gatonye Gathura

About Gatonye Gathura 125 Articles
Science Journalist

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