Why and How to Support Mothers to Combine Breastfeeding and Work

August 5, 2015

The theme of this year’s (2015) World Breastfeeding Week (WBW)   is Breastfeeding and Work: Let’s make it work” with a call to support women to combine breastfeeding and work. This year’s theme revisits the 1993 World Breastfeeding Week campaign on the Mother-Friendly Workplace Initiative. In commemoration of the WBW 2015, Kenya launched her national guidelines for securing a breastfeeding friendly environment at work and at home. The launch was hosted at the Safaricom Michael Joseph Center, Nairobi. Research has also revealed challenges faced by breastfeeding mothers and recommends availing conducive environment and facilities for breastfeeding mothers to be able to exclusively breastfeed.

Research Evidence: Work Related Challenges

Women in both informal and formal employment, urban and rural settings face breastfeeding challenges as evidenced by a research conducted by the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC) across six counties in Kenya.  For women in formal employment, challenges include: (i) failure  of employers to fully respect the legally provided for maternity leave and sometimes women have to resume work earlier or risk losing their job; (ii) lack of work place support in terms of breastfeeding rooms and facilities at the workplace to either breastfeed or express breast milk and sometimes women have to express in non-conducive environments like “I have seen my colleague express in the toilet, so over time it is not  very comfortable … you end up giving up” (Middle Income Mother, Nairobi); and (iii) lack of flexi time and breastfeeding breaks.

For women in informal employment, challenges include: (i) they are not entitled to maternity leave and due to limited pay, they are not able to save enough to cater for the period after birth, they resume work shortly after giving birth, even within one month; (ii) non-conducive work conditions: work for long hours, in environments that are not conducive for carrying babies to work or breastfeeding, and often not allowed to carry the babies as reported by respondents in  urban slums in Nairobi and rural settings.

How to Support Mothers

The National Guidelines launched call for employers to provide a breastfeeding friendly workplace through providing time, space and support for breastfeeding mothers – TIME: Provided a minimum of 14 weeks maternity leave and two weeks paternity leave, and allow short breaks for mothers to breastfeed and express breast milk and flexi-time until baby is two years; SPACE: Provide appropriate space and facilities for mothers to breastfeed and express breast milk; SUPPORT: Promote exclusive breastfeeding through workplace sensitization, and adopt supportive policies and practices that enable women to successfully return to work.

In his speech (delivered by Dr. Kioko), the Cabinet Secretary Ministry of Health, Dr. James Macharia, indicated that the objective of the ministry this year is to galvanize support to enable women to breastfeed and work! He reminded all of us that supporting breastfeeding is investing in the future for everybody. His sentiments were also shared by Grainne Moloney of UNICEF when she remarked, “supporting breastfeeding is a win-win for everybody: mothers are happy; babies are happy; everyone benefits”. Dr. Macharia therefore emphasized that employers should provide space and other facilities to enable women to breastfeed and work.

In the Kenyan Maternity Protection Law, a female employee is entitled to 3 months maternity leave. However, the other benefits including short breastfeeding breaks, flexi-time and space and facilities for mothers to breastfeed and express breast milk are not provided for in the law, and are left at the discretion of the employer.

While the guidelines may seem to only apply to those in formal labour, it was emphasized that whether in formal or informal labour, all women need to be supported to combine breastfeeding with work, as emphasized by Albert Njeru, General Secretary, Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals & Allied, (Central Organization of Trade Unions) -COTU. Importantly, women should also be supported to combine breastfeeding with work at home. As Mrs. Gladys Mugambi, Head of the Unit of Nutrition and Dietetics, Ministry of Health put it, “Men should support their women to enable them to breastfeed and work”.

Best Practices in Breastfeeding and Workplace support

Safaricom was chosen as the host for this year’s WBW commemorations as it is a best practice for supporting women to breastfeed and work. They provide 4 months maternity leave; an additional month annual leave, and daily half-day offs for six months thereafter. They have best practice breastfeeding room, facilities and a crèche to enable mothers to combine breastfeeding with work effectively. In his remarks, Bob Collymore (CEO of Safaricom) remarked “We support mothers to breastfeed and work because it is the right thing to do. Not for public relations or to retain best talents! … A woman should not be forced to choose between breastfeeding and a successful career; they should be supported to do both!” Safaricom realizes the need to support women to combine breastfeeding and work for the woman’s good and that of her child, the good of the organization and society as a whole.

Gloria Ndekei of the Kenya Private Sector Alliance (KEPSA) remarked “When we wanted to show how to care for mothers, we had a best practice; Safaricom.  “Other organizations should emulate Safaricom in supporting mothers to breastfeed and work.” Dr. Jackson Kioko, Head of the Department of Preventive and Promotive Health at the Ministry of Health, representing the Cabinet Secretary remarked. Remarks by various people supported the fact that mothers who are given adequate workplace support are more productive because of decreased absenteeism and less worry (about their children). A handful other organizations that have been identified as doing  well in supporting women to combine breastfeeding and work were also mentioned including the Kenya Red Cross; Oserian Farms,; Naivasha; Karen Roses, Koibatek; Kenya Women Finance Trust; the National Bank, and the International Medical Corps, World Vision, FHI 360 amongst others.


The launched guidelines are likely to improve the situation of workplace support for breastfeeding mothers in Kenya. While provision of guidelines is a great starting point, there is need to ratify the ILO Maternity Protection Convention and provide for not only maternity leave, but for other benefits in the Kenyan law as provided for in the convention. This will go a long way in enabling the enforcement of the guidelines. While there are so many reasons why mothers must be supported to combine breastfeeding with work, most importantly, we should support mothers to combine breastfeeding and work because breastfeeding is a right for the mother and the baby, and breastfeeding benefits everyone!