“I had high hopes of breastfeeding my babies exclusively for six months, unfortunately, I could not. My work schedule was tedious and there was no way I could pull it through.”
These were the words of Olusola Ayeni, a banker, and mother of two children.
Mrs Ayeni said she knows the benefits of exclusive breastfeeding, having read and heard about it during her antenatal clinics.
“I have seen babies who were exclusively breastfed, they look chubby and healthy. I wanted that for my children too. When I got pregnant, I started preparing to breastfeed exclusively buying hand pump to express breast milk, feeding bottles and warmers to store the milk.
“I knew I had only three months maternity leave or less if they don’t call you back to the office. I also knew I won’t have the opportunity to be leaving the office to go check on her as babies are not allowed within the banking hall. I was preparing to have my baby in a nearby crèche where I can be leaving the expressed milk for her. Unfortunately, I never used the breast pump. I still have it in the house,” she said.
Unfortunately, Mrs Ayeni could not fulfil the dream of six months exclusive breastfeeding for her children.
Mrs Ayeni said some of the reasons why she could not fulfil the task were the lack of baby-friendly office policies and lack of good baby care facilities around her workplace where she could put her baby.
“I know expressed milk has to be handled with care and I could not find a daycare facility I could trust with the task. Due to the nature of my job, there are times I don’t get to pick my baby until 7 pm. I also could not frequently visit her daycare during office hours, it was unacceptable.
“I feel guilty at times; I tried compensating by breastfeeding them for over a year,” she said.
Another mother, Chibizor Ocheja, told PREMIUM TIMES that she could not do the six months exclusive breastfeeding because she had to resume office 15 weeks after the birth of her daughter.
Mrs Ocheja, a civil servant in a federal government parastatal in Abuja, had her baby last year.
She said her maternity leave was four months (16 weeks) and she stayed at home for 15 weeks because she started her leave a week before she gave birth.
“When I went back to work, I was expressing breast milk and storing inside the fridge so I can continue exclusive breastfeeding because I kept her with my mother. But as time went on I stopped. It was too stressful and I was not comfortable with the freshness of the milk due to erratic power supply. My compensation is that I close an hour before the normal closing time,” she said.
Another working mother, Moji Abimbola said she could not exclusively her third child because of her workplace policy.
Mrs Abimbola said she was able to exclusively breastfeed her first two children because she had her husband’s support and was not working when she had them.
“My second born had more than six months, I think he enjoyed breastfeeding most because I was a Masters student and I had flexible time. I could always step out from the class, sit by the window and keep breastfeeding him when needed. That way I did not miss most of my lectures and was able to breastfeed.
She, however, said her third child did not enjoy that privilege despite her willingness to continue breastfeeding exclusively for six months; her job would not allow it.
Ameira Ibukun, unlike the Messrs Ajayi, Ocheja and Abimbola had to forfeit her job because her workplace policy does not allow for maternity leave.
“Working as a Physics teacher in one of the private secondary school in Abuja, the school authorities said they could not grant me maternity leave.
“They wanted me to be coming to school for extra classes for the SS3 students and I was to put to bed around the same time. I pleaded with them to give me some weeks off, even without pay, but they refused. There is no how I will go to teach with a new baby. I had to resign and I am yet to get another job since then. It’s now a year and a half,” she said.
These four women represent thousands of mothers in needy situations who despite wanting to breastfeed exclusively for six months are unable to do so because of various reasons.
Despite globally accepted knowledge on the benefits of breastfeeding, the low maternity entitlement and non-friendly office breastfeeding policies have left many women struggling to juggle breastfeeding, their work, and other responsibilities.
Just like the recent footage circulating some weeks ago of a Kenyan lawmaker who was kicked out of parliament for going to work with her baby, millions of nursing mothers globally and in Nigeria face such condemnation.
Women are constantly faced with the choice of choosing between their jobs and taking care of their babies. For working mothers, finding a calm, private area to express breast milk is often hard. Sometimes getting a place to breastfeed, especially in crowded spaces is impossible.
WHO and UNICEF say nearly two out of three infants globally are not exclusively breastfed for the recommended six months, a rate that has remained steady for the past two decades.
Although Nigeria has a low performance on exclusive breastfeeding, the 2018 National Nutrition Health Survey shows that there has been a slight improvement as compared to 2013.
UNICEF’s Deputy Country Representative, Pernile Ironside, said the survey conducted in Nigeria shows that the rate of exclusive breastfeeding has improved from 17 per cent in 2013 to 27 per cent in 2018; which is however still far below the 50 per cent global target.
Mrs Ironside said Nigeria needs to improve on its breastfeeding policies in order to tackle most childhood killer diseases.
“Inadequate and low breastfeeding practice causes over 10 million avoidable childhood diahoerra cases and leads to more than 10,000 deaths a year. Nigeria is not reaching the breastfeeding target because of the practices and policies around maternity and paternity leaves in the country”.
Mrs Ironside said Nigeria is still lagging behind in the practice and advocates that new mothers in public, private and institutions should be given full pay and rights to six months maternity.
She encouraged that the progress which is been made in some parts of the country be taken forward nationally.
Even though the Nigerian law recognises maternity leave as a right for new mothers, the time frame differs across the country and institutions.
UNICEF and WHO have been advocating for six months paid maternity/parent leave as the new gold standard for new mothers. This, the UN agencies said, will allow the mothers recuperate, bond with the babies and give time for six-month exclusive breastfeeding.
Paediatricians also recommend that mothers spend between six months and a year at home with their infants, but few women in Nigeria are afforded the opportunity.
The 1999 Nigerian constitution, 2008 Public Service Rules and the 2004 Nigeria Labour Laws allow three months maternity leave for a woman in the civil service as long as she provides a medical certificate stating that she should not or cannot work.
This allows her to stay off work for 12 weeks – six weeks before the birth of her baby and six weeks after. The Act also allows for at least 50 per cent salary and upon return, to work half an hour twice a day during work hours, to breastfeed. However, there is no clarity on whether an organisation may be penalised if they deny women their maternity leave.
The federal government recently increased the period for maternity leave to 16 weeks with full salary, as well as two hours off each day to breastfeed for six months, after the employee resumes duty.
Despite this law, different provisions apply, depending on whether the woman is employed by the federal, state or local government.
Only three states – Lagos, Kaduna and Enugu, offer 24 weeks of fully paid maternity leave for mothers.
Just as the topic is contentious in the United States (the only industrialised country without a national paid family leave policy), the National Maternity Assessment Survey conducted in Nigeria shows that some private and public institutions offer maternity leaves without pay, while some do not offer maternity leaves at all.
The study found this to be common among private educational institution, manufacturers and hospitality sector.
The survey aimed to examine the implementation and attitudes towards maternity entitlements and workplace lactation policies such as breastfeeding space in the country.
A public health expert with the Alive & Thrive Initiative, Abimbola Oduola, said the level of implementation of maternity leave policy is greater in the public sector compared to the private sector, as some do not offer any maternity leave/entitlements to working mothers.
Ms Oduola, who was one of the researchers, said some organisations do not give mothers the full three months because it is usually converted to days, thereby making official time less than three months in total.
She said while the majority of women support the six-month maternity leave policy, employers and policy administrators are reluctant to adopt such policies because of the effect it would have on their establishments.
“The readiness to adopt six months of maternity leave in the country is still very low. These hesitations were echoed in the educational subsector, where respondents cited that strict school calendar. There is a need for both the formal and informal sector to adopt policies that will support easy, exclusive breastfeeding.”
Ms Oduola said the provision of lactation/breastfeeding spaces in the workplace might be the way to go for working moms to achieve exclusive breastfeeding.
In a similar disposition, a nurse, Beatrice Liadi, said while it is advisable for women to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the policy of six-month maternity leave for working mothers might be difficult to adopt in the country.
Mrs Liadi said the country should, instead, focus on making policies that will be sustainable and not enforcing the six months maternity leave as this might not be realistic.
“This might make women to keep losing their jobs. There should be a pattern that can be self-sustaining. This means most workplaces should factor in spaces for such activities. A place where women can bring their babies to breastfeed and also check on them from time to time” she said.