The business case for breastfeeding

Providing an environment that allows female employees to continue breastfeeding is not only good for the health of the next generation, it has concrete benefits for the employer.

By Anne Marie de Beer, Medical & Scientific Affairs Manager, Nestlé South Africa

Science has proved that breastfeeding plays a key role in providing the nutritional foundations for a healthy body, as well as a strong immune system. It is also a low-cost way of feeding babies. Seldom do convenience, low cost and optimal benefits converge quite so sweetly!

But while the health and nutrition benefits of breastfeeding are well documented, the business case for providing an enabling environment for breastfeeding at the workplace needs to be better recognised.

The benefits of breastfeeding are such that the World Health Organisation recommends that mothers breastfeed exclusively for the first six months, and continue until the age of two alongside solid food.

That’s the theory. Putting it into practice is difficult if not impossible for working mothers. Paid and unpaid maternity leave seldom exceeds six months; thereafter, the reality is that most women need to return to full-time employment. While over 70 percent of new mothers now breastfeed, but those who are full-time employees are less likely to initiate and continue breastfeeding when they return to work.

Shockingly, only 25 percent of employed women combine working and breastfeeding for a minimum of a month.

The solution is to use expressed breastmilk during the day, while the mother is at work. However, physiologically, the supply of breastmilk is dependent on how much nursing is performed. It is thus optimal for breastfeeding mothers to be able to express milk several times during the working day.

Our experience is that simply convincing mothers of the need to breastfeed, and to continue breastfeeding after they return to work, is not sufficient. One also needs to provide an enabling environment: a private, comfortable place as well as a dedicated fridge to store the milk to be taken home.

At Nestlé South Africa we have provided such a facility at our head office for several years. Now we have rolled out the programme in the form of Express rooms to all our factories and Distribution centres, where there are more than 50 female employees and where there is no crèche.

Aside from the benefits to the children, we have definitely experienced several real benefits. The first is obviously that the mothers themselves are appreciative of the help they are getting, and happy employees are liable to be more productive and engaged. Anecdotal evidence suggests that other female employees also feel that the move contributes to a more female-friendly workspace. In turn, that can help encourage women to take their career aspirations more seriously, and thus to contribute at a higher level.

In fact, when this programme was launched on social media, non-employees were enthusiastic and several expressed the feeling that it made them want to work for us.

Benefits of this kind may be hard to quantify but they are real. Employees who are more engaged are a definite positive, and anything that makes a company a more desirable employer is vital in winning the so-called war for talent. Providing such facilities also increases the retention rate for female employees.

We have also experienced a drop in absenteeism, and that is something all businesses can put a value on. It appears that the link between infant health and breastfeeding means fewer childhood ailments of the kind that cause mothers to skip work.

While we have not yet been running the programme for long enough to have data, we expect medical costs to be reduced. US statistics show that for every 1 000 babies not breastfed, there are an extra 2 033 visits to doctors, 212 days in hospital and 609 prescriptions. Reducing these figures would have an appreciable impact on the viability of our medical aid scheme.

These benefits can be obtained for very little cash outlay: a comfortable private space, some refreshments and a dedicated fridge. Encouraging your female employees to continue breastfeeding after they return to work is not just a good thing to do, it makes sound business sense too.

In support of World Breastfeeding Week on 1-7 August, Nestlé South Africa will erect a pop-up breastfeeding facility at Baragwanath Taxi Rank for the month of August. Commuting mothers who have to wait in long queues really need support.

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