Breastfeeding and the boardroom

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The benefits of breastfeeding are well known. Not only does it have a protective effect for babies against certain illnesses and allergies, it is also beneficial for the mother’s health and it helps with bonding. So clear are the benefits that the World Health Organisation recommends that women exclusively breastfeed – with no supplementation of formula or water – for the first six months of a baby’s life. So when a new mum has worked hard to establish a breastfeeding relationship, it can seem a cruel blow when Hong Kong’s paltry ten-week maternity leave comes to an abrupt end and, all too soon, a mother is faced with the decision of how she will feed her baby, once she can no longer be at home, breastfeeding whenever necessary.

Although many mothers might want to continue feeding their child with breast milk on their return to work, for many, the challenges may seem insurmountable. To make it work, a mother will either have to have her baby close at hand, so she can feed when necessary, or find a private place and be able to allocate some time to expressing milk, which she can refrigerate and use for her baby’s bottle feeds in her absence. In some roles and workplaces, either of these options can be extremely difficult – or even impossible – to achieve. Some workplaces are just not suitable for babies to visit, and many roles do not allow employees the flexibility and autonomy to work their day around their need to express. In these cases, formula may seem like the only practical option. Add to this Hong Kong’s culture of long hours, lack of work flexibility (such as job sharing or part-time hours), and, often, regional or long-haul business trips, and breastfeeding might seem one complication too many.

But despite the very real and obvious challenges, some mums do manage to continue breastfeeding once they are back at work. So what sort of help or support can they expect from their employers? And how do they make it a success?

Breastfeeding basics

Despite the general consensus from health organisations and governments that breastfeeding should be encouraged, there is no legal obligation in Hong Kong for companies to help facilitate it. Some companies do provide a breastfeeding room with a comfy chair where mothers can express and store milk, and some companies even have a breastfeeding policy, covering issues such as flexible schedules to facilitate lactation breaks, and the provision of a suitable room for expressing or feeding. But these companies are the exception, rather than the rule.

Providing a feeding or expressing space sounds simple enough, but this can come low down on a company’s list of priorities. According to Maggie Holmes, breastfeeding counsellor with La Leche League, “Many mothers end up expressing milk in the toilets. Space is at a premium here, so in smaller companies, the toilet space is really very, very small. One of our mothers had to run an electrical lead from her office round the corner into the bathroom for her pump.”

But although important, suitable facilities are just a part of the picture for a woman who is seeking to continue breastfeeding. According to Maggie, “When a mother returns to work and wants to breastfeed her baby, she really doesn’t need much in the way of special facilities. What is more important is the attitude of her boss and colleagues. It’s really crucial that she can talk to them frankly about what she needs to do, and that she can take time out to express milk.”

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Making it work

One mum who did manage to continue breastfeeding while back at work is Emma Carr, a merchandising director for a UK ladies’ fashion brand. Emma, from Mid-Levels, says, “In the weeks before going back to work, I trialled pumping and my daughter’s carer bottle-feeding her so everyone involved was as prepared as possible. I had been pumping extra milk and storing it in the freezer. At first, it had been difficult to express anywhere close to what I needed, but over time my body got used to it and I was able to get much closer.

“When I started back at work, I arranged to be home for both the morning and evening feed, which was at 5pm, and my daughter was having two feeds while I was away. When my daughter was in bed, I finished off anything outstanding or made calls to the UK. At work, I had to express four times per day, so I arranged my diary around this. Other than the toilet, there was only one room in our office that had a lock on the door – this was a fabric/meeting room, and although not ideal, at least it was free most of the time, and was a place I could store the hospital-grade pump I had hired. Travelling was more difficult to negotiate, but I ended up not travelling until my daughter was seven months old.”

“It is useful to remember that the first weeks and months are the hardest.”

Since then, Emma has gone on to have twin boys, and has achieved a similar routine second time around. Although, inevitably, there have been hurdles to overcome (such as the early difficulties she experienced with pumping) Emma was not deterred. She says, “Determination is essential and knowledge is key. Surround yourself with other breastfeeding mamas who can support what you are trying to do. Joining La Leche League before my daughter was born was invaluable – the sharing of stories and knowledge imparted by the leaders at meetings, plus the mamas I have met, have got me through the tough times when I thought I might give up.”

Have baby, will travel

A determination to make breastfeeding and work compatible was also an overriding aim for shoe designer Cher Skelling. While pregnant with her daughter, Nina, Cher thought long and hard about how she would manage her return to work. She says, “After looking at all the options, I realised the only solution was to take my baby with me. I’m lucky that my colleagues are supportive, so I knew ultimately it would work out somehow.”

Cher works two days per week at home in Hong Kong, and three days per week in a sample room in China. She says, “I usually stay two nights per week in China in a company apartment. When I knew I would take Nina with me, I asked my Chinese colleagues to look for a nanny to take care of her during the day. I converted one of the bedrooms in the dorm building into a nursery so Nina was never far away from me. I would go over to her room to feed her whenever she was hungry. I also had blinds installed in my office in case I needed to nurse in there. The only difficulty was when I had customer visits as I used to have to leave meetings for a short while to go and feed Nina, but my colleagues always covered for me and, luckily, Nina was a fast feeder.”

For other women hoping to carry on breastfeeding, Cher’s advice is to seek support. “I would say you need to make a decision to breastfeed, then look for ways to make it work, rather than obstacles to make it difficult. Think outside the box and don’t be afraid to ask employers and colleagues for support.”

Keep talking

Returning to work is a challenge for any mum with a ten-week-old baby, and trying to maintain a breastfeeding relationship can make it even trickier. Depending on the nature of the mother’s work, Maggie advises exploring any possible options for flexible working – such as a delayed return, working from home or exemption from travel – with employers.

Communication with other mums is also vital. “We encourage mothers to attend a La Leche League meeting where they can meet other working mothers,” says Maggie (www.lll-hk.org). “Hearing how other mothers cope is probably the most useful thing. Working mothers can pick up practical tips and they may also feel inspired and encouraged to continue once they realise it can be done. We also have a Yahoo group for working mothers where they can share tips on how to cope and chat about the challenges they face.”

Despite the challenges of returning to work and breastfeeding, there can be light at the end of the tunnel. “It is useful to remember that the first weeks and months are the hardest,” says Maggie. “Like most aspects of parenting, with time and practice it all gets easier.”

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Rachel Kenney
Rachel was born on a stormy night in Bristol in the south west of England, and grew into a quirky child who used to clean the bottoms of her shoes and hold her breath until she fainted. Aged three, she said she wanted to be a cow when she grew up (which, hopefully, did not come true!), but later settled for a career in journalism and has since worked for a variety of publications. Rachel loves travelling (which is strange, considering her extreme fear of flying) and has managed to pack a two-and-a-half year backpacking stint, nearly five years of expat living in Hong Kong, and as many holidays as practicable into her life so far. Married with two children, Rachel spends her spare time drinking too many lattes and planning her next escape.

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