Today is International Women’s Day, which was first held in 1911. The idea had been proposed at the second International Conference of Working Women, held in Copenhagen in 1910. The Day symbolises the struggle for equality, particularly in the workplace, but is also an opportunity to celebrate women’s achievements. You can read more about its history here: https://www.internationalwomensday.com/About
The theme this year is #BalanceforBetter, summarising that a better world has a better gender balance. While considerable progress has been made (for example, it was only in 1948 that women at Cambridge were given formal recognition of their degrees, and the percentage of girls in primary school in the world has risen from 65% in 1970 to 90% in 2015*), there is still a gender pay gap and women are in the minority in business and politics.
Balance requires removing conscious and unconscious bias about people; bias that results from assumptions being made about their capabilities. Alongside removing bias there needs to be support to meet specific needs individuals may have so that opportunities really are accessible – practical support includes items such as ramps and particular computer software. Thus, on the one hand, it’s essential not to assume differences that don’t exist so that women, men and intersex people of equal merit have equal opportunities.
On the other hand, it is important to respect real differences such as biological differences. Female employees who are breastfeeding need breaks for expressing or feeding, a suitable place to do that and facilities such as a fridge for storing expressed milk. If those were a legal requirement in the UK employers would be expected to provide them. Indicator 4 of the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative is about maternity protection and the 2016 UK report assessed how well the UK is doing and made recommendations.
The media have been reporting today on the lack of legal protection in the UK for women to express milk or breastfeed when back at work. This is one of the reasons women cited for stopping breastfeeding in the U.K. National Infant Feeding Survey.
Media coverage of WBTi’s findings on gaps in Maternity Protection in the UK
The media seized upon our findings on the lack of maternity protection, in particular the lack of any statutory rights for mothers to breastfeed or express milk at work. There are resources to support employed mothers, and resources to guide best practice for employers (from Maternity Action and from ACAS), but mothers have no rights in law beyond basic health and safety.
Just as a partridge can find support and protection in the branches of a pear tree, each breastfeeding dyad needs a society that provides a supportive structure; to achieve this needs coordination at national level through having a national policy, a strategic plan and effective implementation of that plan (WBTi Indicator 1).
Jeremy Hunt, when Secretary of State for Health, declared that
“The government is implementing the vision set out in the WBTi UK report. The Maternity Transformation Programme seeks to achieve the vision set out in the report by bringing together a wide range of organisations to work in nine areas… this includes promoting the benefits of breastfeeding by
Providing national leadership for breastfeeding celebration week;
Publishing breastfeeding initiation data;
Publishing breastfeeding profiles; and
Improving the quality of data on breastfeeding prevalence at 6-8 weeks after birth.”
A national assessment of UK breastfeeding policies and programmes, “Becoming Breastfeeding Friendly,” has now begun across England, Scotland, and Wales, led by the national governments and public health agencies and the University of Kent. Importantly, this initiative requires government commitment to implementing the resulting recommendations.
Another positive development since the WBTi report in 2016 is that in April 2018 Public Health England created a one-year Midwifery Adviser post for a seconded health professional whose responsibilities include breastfeeding, funded by the National Maternity Transformation Programme.
Day 2 – two turtle doves
This fits very well with Indicator 2 as it assesses the extent to which maternity-related services are Baby-Friendly accredited and the standards support loving relationships. Since the WBTi report, percentages of UK accreditations have increased as follows (2016 figure in brackets):
maternity services 62% (58%)
health visiting services 67% (62%)
universities: 43% (36%) midwifery and 17% (15%) of health visiting courses
childrens’ centres 16 (0)
neonatal units 6 (0)
Births taking place in fully accredited hospitals:
The WBTi recommendations call for “implementation and maintenance of Baby Friendly standards in all healthcare settings” in England and Wales. New maternity plans in December 2018 from the Department for Health and Social Care include “asking all maternity services to deliver an accredited, evidence-based infant feeding programme in 2019 to 2020, such as the UNICEF Baby Friendly initiative.” We would urge the government to extend the expectation of Unicef Baby Friendly accreditation as a minimum in community settings and Health Visiting Services, in neonatal units, and in midwifery and health visitor training programmes.
Day 3 – three French hens
The French hens are believed to symbolise the virtues of faith, hope and charity. Indicator 3 assesses the extent of implementation of the International Code of Marketing of Breastmilk Substitutes and subsequent WHA resolutions. There is faith, that incorporating the Code and resolutions in a country’s laws improves protection for all babies from commercial interests, as the experiences of individual countries like Brazil shows. There is hope that the Code and Resolutions will one day be implemented in UK law. Charity includes helping the vulnerable, such as babies.
Relatively recent changes include the World Health Assembly passing resolution 69.9 in May 2016, welcoming the new World Health Organisation 2016 guidance which clarifies that the Code applies to all milks and commercially produced foods marketed as suitable for infants and young children up to 36 months. A new Implementation Manual for this WHO guidance is also available.
In addition, the First Steps Nutrition Trust is now taking on the role of secretariat to the Baby Feeding Law Group (BFLG), a coalition of UK organisations working in maternal and infant health who work to bring UK law into compliance with the International Code. The WBTi UK Steering team is a member of the BFLG.
Day 4 – four calling birds
Indicator 4 assesses the protection and support provided by workplaces for employees who are breastfeeding. Four organisations helping to improve the situation include:
WBTi UK, which made several recommendations in its report, including that tribunal access is available to women in all income brackets.
Gold is associated with precious things, and colostrum is known as “liquid gold.”
Indicator 5 assesses both the extent to which care providers are trained in infant and young child feeding and how supportive health service policies are. There are five professions which work most closely with mothers, infants and young children: midwives, obstetricians, paediatricians, health visitors and GPs. If they value breastfeeding and have the training to support mothers effectively they can serve as a golden chain of support.
The midwifery standards are currently undergoing a thorough review and there will be a consultation in February 2019.
Members of the WBTi team have been supporting the work of revising and updating professional standards, and a working group led by Unicef Baby Friendly has now formed to take this work forward.
Day 6 – six geese a-laying
In the song the geese symbolise the six days of creation.
Indicator 6 covers community-based support. So many mothers stop breastfeeding before they want to that it is really important to create an integrated system of support to avoid mothers falling into gaps between services. Six key aspects are:
Basic support: Health visitors and other health workers trained to a minimum Baby Friendly standard provide basic but universal help with feeding.
Additional: A peer support programme with trained peer supporters provides ongoing social support.
Specialist: For more challenging situations, mothers need to be able to access specialist help, for example from certified lactation consultants and breastfeeding counsellors.
Matt Hancock, UK Secretary of State for Health and Social Care since July 2018, launched his prevention vision on 5 November.
His other priorities are to advance health technology and provide better support for the health and social care workforce. He sees prevention as having two aspects. Partly it is about keeping well physically and mentally, to prevent ill health, but also about the environment around people, their lifestyle choices and how existing health conditions are managed. The aims are for the average person to have 5 more years of healthy independent living by 2035, and to reduce the gap between the richest and poorest. At present there is a large discrepancy in spending with £97 billion (public money) spent on treating disease and £8 billion on prevention across the UK!
The proposed actions in the vision are:
“Prioritising investment in primary and community healthcare
Making sure every child has the best start in life (our emphasis)
Supporting local councils to take the lead in improving health locally through innovation, communication and community outreach
Coordinating transport, housing, education, the workplace and the environment – in the grand enterprise to improve our nation’s health
Involving employers, businesses, charities, the voluntary sector and local groups in creating safe, connected and healthy neighbourhoods and workplaces”
It states there is strong evidence that prevention works and recognises that a healthy population is both vital for a strong economy and for reducing pressure on services like the NHS (almost 10% of the national income is spent on healthcare). Average life expectancy is now 81 years, helped by:
advances in healthcare
changing attitudes so there is less stigma with some conditions
improvements in the environment, at home, work and in neighbourhoods
antibiotics and mass vaccination
public health programmes.
However, there are major challenges in the huge discrepancies between areas – ‘A boy born today in the most deprived area of England can expect to live about 19 fewer years in good health and die nine years earlier than a boy born into the least deprived area.’ (p.7)
Improvements will depend both on encouraging individuals to choose healthy lifestyles and manage their own health, and expecting local authorities to take the lead in improving the health of their communities. The challenges of smoking, mental ill health, obesity, high blood pressure and alcolol-related harm are mentioned, along with the benefit of having a more personalised approach to health.
The section on ‘Giving our children the best start in life’ (p.20) mentions healthier pregnancies, improved language acquisition, reducing parental conflict, improving dental health, protecting mental health and schools involvement, but infant feeding is not mentioned at all!
However, in the Parliamentary debate on the vision (Prevention of Ill Health: Government Vision) on 5 November, Alison Thewliss MP made the case for supporting breastfeeding by investing in the Baby Friendly Initiative to bring all maternity and community services up to the minimum standard. Matthew Hancock’s reply sounds positive: ‘The earlier that we can start with this sort of strategy of preventing ill health the better, and there is a lot of merit in a lot of what the hon. Lady said.’
‘Prevention, Protection and Promotion’ at Public Health England
Earlier in the year (March 2018), Professor Viv Bennett, the Chief Public Health Nurse, and Professor Jane Cummings, the Chief Nursing Officer, came together to launch a campaign on the ‘3Ps – Prevention, Protection and Promotion’, which is about actions to improve public health and reduce health inequalities. Breastfeeding is mentioned in the Maternity Transformation Campaign and Better Births and there appears to be increased govenment commitment to the key role breastfeeding plays in improving public health.
Directors of Public Health have a key role
The DHSC paper expects Directors of Public Health to ‘play an important leadership role’ (p.15). As an example, the Annual Report of Croydon’s Director of Public Health, published in mid-November, We are Croydon: Early Experiences Last a Lifetime, focusses this year on the first 1000 days of a child’s life.
It includes three breastfeeding recommendations:
Reset targets for increasing breastfeeding rates at 6 to 8 weeks and 6 months across the Borough and within particular localities
Achieve level 3 of the UNICEF Baby Friendly award
Turn Croydon into a breastfeeding friendly Borough, so women feel comfortable breastfeeding when they are out and about
How can progress on prevention occur unless it starts at the beginning – with infants? Will other Directors come up with similar recommendations?
Make London a ‘Baby-Friendly’ city
The Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, aims to “make London a ‘Baby-Friendly’ city” in the London Food Strategy. This strategy aims to increase the health of all Londoners from infancy onwards, including supporting and normalising breastfeeding across London Transport and across government buildings and workplaces, and encouraging all London boroughs to become Unicef UK Baby Friendly-accredited in maternity and community services.
The UK government is due to publish a Green Paper on Prevention in 2019 to set out more detailed plans and, together with the NHS Long Term Plan, which is due to be published soon, is relevant to a future with better health for all.
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The First 1000 Days of Life (from conception to the age of two years) are a critical window in a baby’s development. The 1000 Days concept was first widely used by the World Health Organisation and UNICEF, and there are currently numerous campaigns building on that theme.*
A focused briefing on the the role of breastfeeding on infant brain growth and emotional development can be found here.
Breastfeeding: cornerstone of the First 1000 Days
Human babies are born extremely immature compared to other mammals; they are completely dependent on their mothers for milk, comfort and warmth.
“A newborn baby has only three demands. They are warmth in the arms of its mother, food from her breasts, and security in the knowledge of her presence. Breastfeeding satisfies all three.” ~ Grantly Dick-Read
Scientific research has continued to underscore the vital role that breastfeeding and breastmilk play in the development of the human infant. See our WBTi blog series for this year’s World Breastfeeding Week, from 31st July – 7th August 2018 for a review of the myriad ways that breastfeeding influences human development.
Breastfeeding: more than just food
This is the title of a series of blogs by Dr Jenny Thomas which focuses on some of the ways that breastfeeding contributes to immune development and more. Beyond physical health and development, however, breastfeeding also plays a key role in the healthy mental and emotional development of the infant. Breastfeeding provides optimal nutrition for the first months and years of life, alongside suitable complementary food after six months, but it also supports the development of the child’s immune system and protects against a number of non-communicable diseases in later life as well.
The impact of breastfeeding on maternal and infant mental health and wellbeing.
Breastfeeding can help strengthen mother and baby’s resilience against adversity, and can protect infants even when their mothers suffer from postnatal depression. It supports optimal brain growth and cognitive development. Unfortunately, if mothers don’t receive the support they need with breastfeeding, this can significantly increase their risk of postnatal depression. A summary of evidence can be found here.
It is essential that policy makers, commissioners, and researchers understand the evidence and importance of breastfeeding, so that women who want to breastfeed get any support they need. The WBTI report outlines major policies and programmes that national infant feeding strategies need to include; other research on the psychological and cultural influences on mothers’ infant feeding decisions will help policy makers to develop sensitive and sound policies and programmes to support all families.
In the end, it will be essential that families themselves are heard, in order to create the support systems that our society needs.
*Unfortunately a number of infant milk and baby food companies have jumped on the “1000 Days” bandwagon too, despite the fact that breastfeeding is the centrepiece of the original 1000 Days concept, and replacing breastmilk with formula or baby food actually removes that fundamental building block from a baby’s development.
Helen Gray MPhil IBCLC is Joint Coordinator of the World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) UK Working Group. She is on the national committee of Lactation Consultants of Great Britain, and is also an accredited La Leche League Leader. She is a founding member of National Maternity Voices. She represents LLLGB on the UK Baby Feeding Law Group, and serves on the La Leche League International special committee on the International Code.
Guest blog by Rosalind Bragg, Director of Maternity Action
Maternity Action’s work centres on protecting the rights of pregnant women and new mothers in the workplace. As a member of the WBTi Core Group, Maternity Action was responsible for gathering most of the information on Indicator 4, “Maternity Protection in the workplace.” They have very kindly allowed us to republish their blog on the current status of breastfeeding in the workplace here during UK National Breastfeeding Weeks.
The original blog can be found on Maternity Action’s website here, along with a range of resources on maternity rights. Follow Maternity Action for updates on their campaigns on this and other important maternity rights.
The right to breastfeeding breaks and facilities is a gap in the policy framework to support new parents to balance work and family responsibilities. The current review of Shared Parental Leave policies is an opportunity to remedy this omission.
On May 15, we presented to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Infant Feeding focusing on Maternity Action’s campaigning against pregnancy and maternity discrimination and the particular challenges facing breastfeeding women in the workplace.
Women in the UK who wish to combine work and breastfeeding have very weak legal protections. Health and safety regulations provide breastfeeding women with the right to a place to rest and to a health and safety risk assessment. While some employers may offer regular breaks to breastfeed or express milk and a private space in which to do so, these are not required by law.
For most women, flexible working requests are the only legal avenue to seek adjustments to their working conditions to facilitate breastfeeding. Employers must seriously consider flexible working requests but can refuse them if they have a good business reason for doing so. On our advice line, we regularly hear from women struggling to negotiate flexible working arrangements on return to work. Employers can, and often do, reject reasonable requests for adjustments to working conditions.
Many of the UK’s trading partners have more constructive approaches to balancing breastfeeding and work. Germany provides paid breastfeeding breaks and facilities while the US provides unpaid breaks. Australia offers an alternative form of protection by prohibiting discrimination on grounds of breastfeeding. These are just a few examples. It is unsurprising that the recent World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative (WBTi) review rated the UK 67th out of 91 countries on its law, policy and programmes that support breastfeeding women.
The current review of the Shared Parental Leave scheme provides an opportunity for Government to reconsider its approach to breastfeeding and work. In 2013, when debates were underway on the new scheme, Maternity Action campaigned for a statutory right to breastfeed on return to work. While this did result in ACAS guidance on the issue, legal protections were not forthcoming.
It is extraordinary that a scheme to encourage parents to share leave from their child’s first weeks should pay so little attention to breastfeeding. The Department of Health recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months and breastfeeding in conjunction with solid food thereafter. Given the absence of legal protections for breastfeeding women, the vast majority of women who share leave will need to stop breastfeeding prior to return to work. This reduces the number of women prepared to share leave with their partner and also contributes to the UK’s low rate of breastfeeding.
Whether women breastfeed or not, and for how long, is a decision for each woman to make. The role of the law is to remove impediments to breastfeeding, enabling women to make decisions based on their own needs, not the convenience of their employers or other equally irrelevant factors. It is long past time that UK employment law caught up with that of its trading partners and provided formal legal protection for breastfeeding on return to work.
I recently heard about Rose (not her real name). Rose is in her mid-twenties and breastfeeding her second baby. She found breastfeeding to be straightforward with both children. Rose planned to return to work when her second baby was 6 months old as the family needs two incomes to manage financially.
When her baby was 5 months old, Rose quickly found a highly suitable retail job, involving working some evenings and a Sunday shift. There would be no childcare costs as her husband is at home at those times.
However, induction for the job involve attending the store for the whole of one Friday. No information was given in advance about the timing of the lunch break so Rose could not arrange for her baby to be brought to her for a feed. She was very upset the evening before at the thought of being away from her baby for a whole day. Breastfeeding is a private matter for her and she felt too embarrassed to mention to her new employer that she is breastfeeding and also feared she might be seen as a difficult employee.
If employers expected that a mother with a young baby might be breastfeeding, and routinely checked whether she had any specific needs, mothers like Rose would be supported when they return to work, rather than facing additional stress and worry.
If you or someone you know needs advice on rights at work, including maternity pay and benefits, Maternity Action has information on its website and a telephone advice line: