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Science has proved that breastfeeding plays a key role in providing the nutritional foundation for a healthy body and 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 to do so until the age of two, alongside feeding the baby solid food. At least 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 more than 70% of new mothers breastfeed, those who are full-time employees are less likely to initiate and continue breastfeeding when they return to work.

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

The solution is to use expressed breast milk during the day while the mother is at work. However, physiologically, the supply of breast milk 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 SA we have provided such a facility; our head office rolled out express rooms to all our factories and distribution centres. Apart 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.

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 to 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 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.

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.

– De Beer is medical and scientific affairs manager at Nestlé SA.

In support of World Breastfeeding Week, Nestlé will erect a pop-up breastfeeding facility at Baragwanath Taxi Rank during August for commuting mothers

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