21st October 2021
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Breastfeeding Week

The first week of August (1-7) marked the World Breastfeeding Week 2021 and I was fortunate to attend a webinar organised by the Nigeria Health Watch titled “Strengthening Workplace Policies for Exclusive Breastfeeding: A Shared Responsibility.” The session which inspired the title of this article revealed how far implementing a 6 months paid maternity leave to encourage exclusive breastfeeding has come in Nigeria. It is public knowledge that feeding infants and young children is important for their growth. According to WHO and UNICEF, infants should be breastfed within one hour of birth, then exclusively for up to 6 months. Breastfeeding helps build the child’s immunity and reduces the risk of diseases like diarrhoea and pneumonia. It also reduces the risk of mothers having breast and ovarian cancer.  According to NDHS 2018, the percentage of children age 2-3 months who are exclusively breastfed is 29.1, an improvement from the 18.9 percent in 2013 but this still falls short of the 50% goal set by the World Health Assembly for 2025 and the Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) Target for 2030.

When to breastfeed. Photo credits: WHO

For working mothers, the problem of following through with exclusive breastfeeding is the workplace policy—primarily the duration of  maternity leave and how their employer works on their inclusive policies. According to the Nigerian constitution, women are entitled to 12 weeks of maternity leave which they could take six(6) weeks before and six(6) weeks after delivery. They are also allowed half an hour break twice a day during work hours to nurse their child. Sadly, a 3 months maternity leave cannot help mothers ensure an exclusive breastfeeding pattern since it makes up only half of the recommended duration but a 6 months paid leave can. As strange as it may sound in Nigeria, it is slowly gaining acceptance and in some states, implementation. In 2014, Lagos State approved 10 day paternity leave for fathers who are civil servants and 6 months maternity leave for mothers to allow for exclusive breastfeeding. The Governor of Kaduna State, Nasir El-Rufa’i announced in 2019 that maternity leave would be increased from 3 to 6 months paid leave for female civil servants in the state. A Maternity and Paternity Leave Bill was validated at a meeting in 2020. This bill provides 6 months maternity leave for women and 2 weeks paternity leave for fathers who work in public service. Enugu and Ekiti states have also approved the 6 months paid maternity leave for women with the former giving a 3 weeks paternity leave to men. Although this policy seems established in the public sectors of these four states, there is no assurance that the private sector will follow suit or that it will become a trend in the country.

Interesting facts about breastfeeding. Photo credits: WHO

The Mother’s Perspective

Childbirth, either through caeserian section or vagina delivery takes a toll on the woman’s body and whilst recovering from this, she has to take care of her child. I remember watching my sister and sister-in-law go through this phase. Even though both were not working at the time of their deliveries, they were always exhausted at night. On one occasion, my niece woke up at night crying, I remember asking my sister (the baby’s mother) to rest while I walked to and fro the room with the child so that she could go back to sleep. Therefore, I cannot imagine a working mother going through that. Sadly many working women resume work after their 12 weeks leave and have to leave their children at the Crèche or with nannies—which reduces breastfeeding drastically. Although the law allows them to take breaks to nurse their child, most of these women do not work in environments that allow them to bring in their babies. Moreover after the 12 weeks leave, there is the question of how integration works. Are there measures to help these women reintegrate themselves into the workplace? Or do they start with a backlog and truckload of duties waiting on their desk?

The Employer’s Side of The Story

Federal organisations and Civil societies might find it easier to effect the 6 months paid leave but the same can not be said of companies in the private sector. These organisations are profit based and might not have a large number of staff. In fact, every staff is accounted for and important to maintaining the ecosystem of the workplace. To cover for the absence of these women during their maternity leave, some of their colleagues might be brought on from other departments to do their jobs—as the option of hiring temporary workers is not popular in Nigeria. Aside from the increased workload on other staff members, some companies cannot afford to pay for these women to go on a 6 months leave. There is also a mindset that the company is losing money rather than saving it. Although this may appear to be a selfish thought but some of these organisations have to account for every kobo they spend. It would be wise to create a workplace policy that supports exclusive breastfeeding and also protects the interests of the private sector.

How the workplace can help breastfeeding mothers. Photo credits: WHO.

The Reality

 As Nemat Hajeebhay, Chief of Section, Nutrition at UNICEF pointed out during the session, many women are afraid of losing their jobs. We can hardly blame them as most workplaces favor men over women despite the ongoing advocacy for equal opportunities. Since flexibility appears to be important, most women often wait to have their children before settling in their career—a sad reality. However the pandemic has changed the structure of the workplace. Working remotely and working from home are no longer strange concepts and can be used to support exclusive breastfeeding. There is also the option of working half day instead of the normal work hours.

It is important to note that the nature of the woman’s job will determine the kind of options the workplace can provide to support exclusive breastfeeding.

Is a 6 month maternity paid leave policy possible in Nigeria? Yes. Can we implement this and still consider the employer’s interest? Yes. Workplace policies that support exclusive breastfeeding should be made in consideration of both working mothers and fathers and employers. We must understand that healthy babies are a product of optimal breastfeeding and this can not be achieved without workplace policies that support mothers and fathers.

Do you have suggestions on the kind of policies needed to improve breastfeeding, or would you like to share your experience dealing with this? Kindly share them in the comment section. Thank you.

Ruth Torty

Ruth Torty is a biochemist, freelance health and biotechnology content writer. She writes to shed light on health issues, rare diseases and science research in Nigeria. She is also a creative writer and has published on different literary sites including Spillwords and Nnoko Stories. She is passionate about genomics and its role in healthcare.