How mothers’ networks are promoting breastfeeding at work in Bangladesh

August 7, 2023

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Breastfeeding is crucial to ensure proper growth and development of newborns. A new initiative in Bangladesh is building mothers’ support networks to ensure that the workplace doesn’t become a hindrance to breastfeeding. So, how is the initiative faring?

Shamima Akther has been working at a textile factory in Bangladesh since January 2018 as a Senior Quality Inspector. She welcomed her first child, Sami, into the world just 7 months ago. Shamima knew that a different set of challenges awaited her- as she would now have to care for her newborn while resuming her work at the factory.

During her pregnancy, she came across a Mothers’ Support Group in her factory, which is a group of health and welfare officers, human resource officers, paramedics, safety committee members, and participation committee members- all working in the factory. They are also experienced mothers in that group.

From the sessions at the Mothers’ Support Group, Shamima got in-depth knowledge of the long-term physical and mental health benefits of breastfeeding for the baby.

The crucial role of breastfeeding 

Breastfeeding gives children the healthiest start in life, ensuring all the energy and nutrients needed for the first six months of life. It continues to partially fulfill children’s nutritional needs until age 2 and beyond, alongside nutritious complementary foods.

It also works to reduce the risk of gastrointestinal infection, pneumonia, and otitis media, which are some of the common causes of child morbidity and mortality in developing countries. Studies on the relationship between breastfeeding and child mortality have shown that breastfed children have lower neonatal, infant, and under-five child death rates than non-breastfed children.

Working women can get the necessary support to continue breastfeeding their children if they have the necessary supportive environment. © BRAC 2023

As Shamima approached her expected delivery date, the Mothers’ Support Group reached out to her. They once again inspired her to go to a facility delivery and also reminded her how important it is to start early initiation of breastfeeding.

“I was unsure how challenging it would be to exclusively breastfeed my child for six months because I had to return to work after two months of giving birth,” Shamima said.

As her maternity leave neared its end, Shamima began preparing for her transition back to the workplace. However, the thought of continuing breastfeeding while juggling her professional responsibilities seemed daunting.

Shamima’s anxiety is shared by most working mothers. Breastfeeding among employed mothers is lower than that of stay-at-home mothers, as revealed by a few recent global studies. This is not surprising considering that although the number of women in the workforce has increased over the years,  accommodating systems  still lag.

Especially the issue of maternity leaves, availability of on-site child-care facilities including breastfeeding space, lack of a supportive and inclusive work environment, and flexibility of schedule continue to hinder seamless reintegration.

Nuances at play behind the scenes 

Most working mothers in Bangladesh have to tackle three responsibilities. Firstly, the sole responsibility of child care. Secondly, their professional commitments, and third their role as homemakers. This overload leads to an extreme amount of stress, anxiety, guilt, and fatigue, which consequently affects milk production resulting in irregular pumping schedules. At that point, it simply becomes easier to opt out of breastfeeding.

Shamima, determined to continue breastfeeding her baby, sought advice from the Mothers’ Support Group. They supported her by ensuring breastfeeding breaks, providing dietary advice, and also teaching her how to express and store breast milk.

“A few years ago, I couldn’t have imagined caring for my infant at work. But now I have a private, secure breastfeeding area where I can also refrigerate my express milk.” Shamima explained how she expressed, stored, and handled breast milk.

But the road was not all rosy. Sometimes she felt terrible for being away from her child, other times she was concerned about the pain and engorgement while working. Sometimes, she worried whether her supervisor would be angry at her for the multiple breastfeeding breaks she was having to take.

But Shamima stayed strong and successfully gave her child the foundational nutrients for a healthy life ahead. A huge part in this was played by the Mothers’ Support Group – formed by the Mothers@Work program.

It is a national initiative to create an enabling environment at the workplace for maternity rights protection and breastfeeding support for working mothers and their children. Guided by global and national laws, acts and regulations, this programme is developed with seven minimum standards on the maternity rights, child care and breastfeeding support provisions. It is being implemented at ready-made garment factories by BRAC with support from UNICEF-Bangladesh through partnerships with private sector and civil society stakeholders.

Dr Mithun Gupta is a Programme Manager at BRAC Health programme.

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