Support of female colleagues is vital for breastfeeding women returning to work, study finds

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

If you're planning to continue breastfeeding when you return to work, receiving support from your female colleagues is more important than encouragement from family and friends, according to new research.

The study, published in the journal Health Communicationfound that the more support mamas receive from co-workers, the more successful they are in believing they can keep breastfeeding after maternity leave is over.

"In order to empower women to reach their goals and to continue breastfeeding, it's critical to motivate all co-workers by offering verbal encouragement and practical help," said co-author Assistant Professor Joanne Goldbort of the findings. 

According to Golbort and lead author Jie Zhuang, while previous research has demonstrated that breastfeeding-related workplace policy plays a significant role in women's decision to continue breastfeeding, the influence of other variables such as support (or lack thereof) from coworkers has been less clear.

To examine these interpersonal factors in more detail, the researchers surveyed 500 working mums. Of these mothers, 81 never breastfed, while 80 weaned before they returned to work. Of the mums who continued breastfeeding their bubs, over half chose to wean between the first and sixth month.

While the study didn't examine the specific reasons behind the mothers' decision to stop breastfeeding, the researchers gathered information about their co-workers' perceptions, any stigma they experienced, and how comfortable (or otherwise) they felt pumping milk at work.

Zhuang says that while you might expect women in the workplace to automatically support one another, the reality is that might not be the case. 

But it is key.

According to the findings, receiving support from female colleagues was an important factor for those who continued to breastfeed, with 15 per cent of mums choosing to continue because of co-workers and supervisors who directly motivated them to do so.

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According to Goldbort, there are a number of reasons why support from colleagues is so crucial for working mums - even more so than significant others and close friends.

"One factor could be that simply spending the majority of their time during the day with co-workers necessitates more support for breastfeeding success," Goldbort said. "In the workplace, a breastfeeding woman's dependence on this is higher because she has to work collegially with co-workers, gain their support to assist with the times she's away from her desk, and ultimately try to lessen the 'you get a break and I don't' stigma."

Goldbort adds that "it takes a village to breastfeed a baby".

"If women know that co-workers and supervisors will support them in their breastfeeding efforts, it can make a big difference," she says.

But it's not just support from colleagues that counts. About 25 per cent of women kept feeding while working because their workplace created a "helpful environment" such as a place to express milk. 

"Workplaces need to enhance the mother-friendly climate by encouraging and rewarding coworkers and providing support necessary for breastfeeding colleagues," the authors write.

A 2015 study, published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour found that work supervisors' attitudes were also important for breastfeeding mums' decisions to continue feeding after returning to work.  "Supervisors' negative workplace remarks about breastfeeding related to an eightfold increase of women's likelihood to discontinue exclusive breastfeeding," the authors wrote.

 The Australian Breastfeeding Association outlines three key criteria workplaces need to address to provide breastfeeding friendly environments.

  • Space: The organisation provides a private space (that is not a toilet or shower) for employees to feed their baby or express milk. Depending on the size of the workplace, this can be a dedicated breastfeeding/expressing room or, a shared facility such as a first aid room/prayer room or meeting room. 
  • Time: A Breastfeeding Policy is in place, which clearly outlines the support for lactation breaks where mum can feed or express. 
  • Support: "Becoming a truly breastfeeding friendly workplace includes all the practical factors, but it importantly also means developing a cultural shift in your organisation to a workplace with a truly supportive breastfeeding environment," the ABA notes. "This is equally as important for the ABA as the practical factor of a room and lactation breaks."

Find more information about breastfeeding and returning to work here

You can access a return to work breastfeeding plan here.