Working mothers should have 18-weeks of maternity leave on full pay, as well as two, 30-minute breastfeeding breaks per day, as per recommendations from the ILO. Just 38 per cent of children in the Americas are breastfed exclusively until six months of age.
The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) recommends that countries in Latin America and the Caribbean implement laws to ensure that working women are given the time and support they need to breastfeed. This includes adequate paid maternity leave and sufficient breastfeeding breaks upon return to work.
The call comes on the occasion of International Breastfeeding Week, commemorated each year on 1-7 August. PAHO’s theme this year is “Protect Breastfeeding in the Workplace”, which aims to raise awareness of the need to support parents and create an enabling environment where mothers can breastfeed optimally.
In order to ensure that working mothers are adequately protected, PAHO is calling for countries to implement the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) Convention No. 183 and the Maternity Protection Recommendation, 2000 (R191) and to enshrine this in national law. This states that women should be given at least 14 weeks paid maternity leave, and that governments should endeavour to extend this leave to at least 18 weeks. It also stipulates that working mothers should be provided with two 30-minute nursing breaks each day upon her return to work, as well as facilities for breastfeeding at or near the workplace.
“Maternity is a particularly vulnerable time for working women and their families,” said Dr Anselm Hennis, Director of Noncommunicable Diseases and Mental Health at PAHO. “It is vital that expectant and nursing mothers are protected by law so that they have adequate time to give birth, recover, and nurse their children.”
Dr Hennis highlighted that paid maternity leave leads to increased duration of breastfeeding and improved health and wellbeing for both mother and child. Women who only receive short maternity leave (six weeks or less) are four times more likely to not establish breastfeeding or to stop breastfeeding early.
In the Americas, just three countries provide women with paid maternity leave of 18 weeks or longer, and another eight countries provide women with at least 14 weeks. When it comes to the recommendations regarding breastfeeding breaks, 18 countries in the region provide these breaks to mothers when they return to the workplace.
“Many countries in the Americas include provisions for maternity and breastfeeding for working mothers in their labour laws, but few of these provisions go far enough to ensure that women and children are properly supported,” said Regional Advisor for Nutrition and Social Determinants of Health at PAHO Dr Ruben Grajeda. “This is a fundamental issue of equality, where women who are not protected are faced with a stark choice between economic stability and the health of their child.”
As well as calling on governments to implement maternity protection in the workplace, PAHO also recommends a variety of other measures to protect, promote and support the right to breastfeeding. These include the adoption and monitoring of the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes and the implementation of the Baby-friendly Hospital Initiative (BFHI).
Breastfeeding in the Americas
In the Americas, 54 per cent of children are breastfed within the first hour of life and 38 per cent are breastfed exclusively until six months of age as recommended by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, data varies significantly from country to country, with early-onset breastfeeding (within the first hour or life) ranging from 38.1 per cent in the Dominican Republic to 76.5 per cent in Uruguay. Exclusive breastfeeding for six months ranges from 2.8 per cent in Suriname to 68.4 per cent in Peru.
Benefits of breastfeeding for children and mothers
Breastfeeding has a variety of benefits for both mother and child. For young children, it is designed to meet all of their nutritional and immunological needs. It protects against disease and death from diarrhoea and respiratory infections and reduces the risk of dental malocclusion, obesity and diabetes. Breastfeeding also contributes to cognitive development: breastfed children have an average intelligence quotient (I.Q.) 2.6 points higher than children that are not breastfed.
Women that breastfeed their babies also have a number of benefits, including a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer, improved birth spacing, and lower risk of diabetes and obesity. It is estimated that universal breastfeeding could prevent 823, 000 deaths in children aged less than five and 20, 000 deaths in women from breast cancer, annually.