PUBLISHED : Monday, 01 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 01 August, 2005, 12:00am

The first week of August is always World Breastfeeding Week - a fact often ignored in Hong Kong.

But first, the good news. We've gone from the bottom of the world breastfeeding table to somewhere in the middle. Back in 1992, only 19 per cent of Hong Kong mothers were breastfeeding their babies when they left hospital. That's climbed to 61.7 per cent, thanks to a more educated generation of mothers who are now more likely to know that breast milk is better.

Things are moving in the right direction on the hospital front. But there's a long way to go to persuade the general community - families, employers, building owners, shopping centre managers - to do more to help babies get a good start in life.

Once those 61.7 per cent of mothers get their babies home, breastfeeding rates drop drastically. The problem starts in hospitals, where a third of mothers who are technically breastfeeding when discharged are practising complementary feeding - or supplementing breast milk with formula.

All maternity units in Hong Kong still accept free supplies from milk powder companies - which encourages staff to offer babies a bottle of milk in the nursery when they don't want to wake a mother to breastfeed

Although the hospitals should be doing more to help mothers establish successful breastfeeding, it's up to all of us - especially those working with or employing new mothers - to do more.

The World Health Organisation now recommends that all babies be fed only breast milk for the first six months. But the time when most women give up breast-feeding altogether is when they go back to work - often just six weeks after the babies' birth. Is it reasonable to expect working women to keep breastfeeding? Is it possible?

It's not just possible, it's standard practice in workplaces in Australia, for instance. There's no reason we can't achieve the same thing here. It simply needs a thoughtful employer to provide a clean, private space for breastfeeding women to express milk for their babies and room in a refrigerator to store the milk.

To prove how possible this is, the Department of Health's Central Education Unit - an employer that promotes breastfeeding - has provided these things, along with a private breastfeeding room available not only to staff but to any member of the public who wants to breastfeed while out and about in Wan Chai (it's on the seventh floor of the Southorn Centre, next to the Wan Chai MTR station on Hennessy Road).

But changing entrenched habits takes a lot of work. Attitudes in hospitals altered only after much campaigning by breastfeeding advocates such as La Leche League and Unicef's Baby Friendly Hospital Initiative Hong Kong Association.

Just a decade ago, most maternity staff were likely to whisk babies off and bottle-feed them. And rooming-in - the not-so-revolutionary idea of letting the baby stay next to the mother so that she's immediately available whenever her child is hungry - is still not practised in every maternity unit in Hong Kong.

Anyone who has worked in a hospital knows that doing anything to upset routine won't be popular with staff. But the good news is that many are now starting to recognise that the best place for a healthy baby is with his or her mum.