To promote breastfeeding, give women more maternity leave

Kelly Yang says to get more women to breastfeed, Hong Kong needs to catch up with other enlightened places and offer longer maternity leave

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 22 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 August, 2012, 10:12am

When the Japanese infant formula scandal surfaced, Secretary for Food and Health Ko Wing-man urged mothers to switch to breastfeeding. But it's not that simple. To be serious about breastfeeding, Hong Kong needs to take a closer look at its hospital practices and maternity leave legislation.

As a mother who breastfed both my children for a year, I have seen the benefits. From the moment they were born, I never looked back. When my maternity leave was over and I had to head back to the office, I juggled pumping with work. I'm proud to say I have expressed breast milk in every possible place one can do so - on a plane, in the back of a broom closet, in bathrooms, in taxis, underneath desks, in the park and even on top of a mountain.

It helps that I am the head of my company. As such, when I returned to work, I was able to set the standard that breastfeeding is normal, that women disappearing for 20 minutes every couple of hours, that bottles of breast milk marked "Do not drink!" in the company fridge, and that the loud noises the breast pump machine makes (like an 80-year-old on an assisted breathing machine) are all normal. However, I am the exception.

Too many Hong Kong bosses do not support breastfeeding. They frown on breast milk as "unsanitary" and, therefore, ban it from the company fridge. The anti-breastfeeding feeling is so pervasive that some maternity nurses at hospitals tell new mums: "Don't bother." My younger son was delivered premature at Queen Mary Hospital and was taken away to intensive care. I had to fight with the nurses to help me express milk for a baby I could not touch. They simply did not think it could be done. And, of course, it could. It just takes an incredibly strong will - something not every woman who has just gone through labour should be expected to have.

But even more important than nurses' attitudes and employers' opinions is the fact that the 10 weeks of maternity leave mandated by the government is not enough. It's enough to recover from the actual injury of the birth, but mothering is more than that. If we want to give our children the very best start, we have to give our mothers a longer break so they see breastfeeding as a realistic option.

If we look at other developed economies, Hong Kong lags behind Sweden, Britain and Denmark. It even lags behind the mainland, with its three months' paid maternity leave. If we can give Hong Kong mothers just four extra months off, even if it is unpaid, that will carry the babies over to six months, when they will start solids. Then the demand for milk will fall, and pumping breast milk at work will become more manageable.

As a working mum, I can think of fewer choices more difficult and painful for a woman than either giving up what's best for her baby or what's best for her other baby (her work). Let's help these mothers out - these strong, wonderful women who help build our economy, society and future - by pushing that decision back, just a few extra months.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School.