By Liz Thomas, founder #Ittasteslikelove, Hong Kong’s normalise breastfeeding campaign

We all know breastfeeding is a good thing – the World Health Organisation (WHO) says so, UNICEF says so, international policymakers say so, and for the most part, so do our friends and families. So why do we need a dedicated week to champion it?

Put simply, it’s because even as governments demand not only that more women breastfeed, but that they do it for longer – the practise is being undermined at every level and women are effectively being set up to fail.

Liz Thomas breastfeeding Hong Kong
Photo: RSP Photography.

What new mothers need is educated support, encouragement from family and friends, community backing and positivity, as well as employers that see the effort and value of their contribution to society by investing in proper parental leave and family-friendly workplaces. What women get is usually the opposite.

“The health, social and economic benefits of breastfeeding – for mother and child – are well-established and accepted throughout the world. Yet, nearly 60 per cent of the world’s infants are missing out on the recommended six months of exclusive breastfeeding,” says UNICEF Executive Director Henrietta Fore.

In Hong Kong, the situation is even worse – just 27.9 per cent of women here reach that recommended milestone. And yet the desire is there – most mothers try to nurse before they leave the hospital.

The sharp drop after discharge, is largely because society doesn’t acknowledge the enormous effort it takes to master and sustain breastfeeding in the modern world. Yes – it may be the biological norm – but if we don’t provide any of the social structures or support it evolved with, we are abandoning women at a point they most need help.

mtr breastfeeding room
A breastfeeding room in the MTR. Photo: MTR Service Update.

The state hospitals pay lip service to the promotion of breastfeeding but many medical professionals lack up-to-date knowledge on the topic. Lactation consultants are few, and many staff still seem more concerned with arbitrary notions of modesty – reacting with inexplicable panic to public nursing – than providing proper help.

The result is mothers face unnecessary hurdles before they’ve even left the maternity ward and the sad reality is that many fare little better once they reach home.

Formula milk can be life-saving in many ways, but the industry has spent decades undermining breastfeeding, and the companies have long had a firm grip on Hong Kong, sidestepping toothless advertising and marketing codes of conduct with ease.

The generation nursing now was invariably raised by people told formula milk was nutritionally superior. That’s been debunked, but the idea that it is practically superior lingers on – the answer to everything from frequent night wakings to cluster feeding.

What many women aren’t told is that it is biologically unusual for human babies to sleep through the night and that frequent nursing is part of mother nature’s way of increasing milk supply.

That generational knowledge has been lost, so when women hit nursing challenges today the village – parents, relatives, older friends – parrot back the inaccurate advice they received 30 years ago.

Wider society exists in a similar time warp when it comes to nursing. It is common to see breasts used to sell or seduce, but seeing them used for their primary purpose can provoke hostility and contempt.

Photo: Hong Kong Breastfeeding Mothers’ Association/Facebook

UNICEF says some 40 per cent of women nursing in public in Hong Kong endure complaints or unpleasant experiences. For new mothers, already daunted by taking baby out in a hot and sticky city, fear of confrontation can impact their confidence and happiness about breastfeeding.

The city’s statutory maternity leave is set at an appalling 10 weeks and there are no legal provisions in place to protect women pumping milk at work. The situation effectively forces many women to choose between breastfeeding and providing for their family.

Those who persevere on return to their jobs, often end up risking serious health issues such as mastitis by delaying and shortening their pumping breaks in a bid to appease unsympathetic bosses and colleagues. Others are forced to pump in unsanitary conditions including toilets or storerooms making an already difficult process, utterly miserable.

Little wonder then that so many cannot reach the recommended six months of nursing exclusively – the barriers to success as numerous and can seem insurmountable.

Hong Kong is not alone in letting women down so drastically but the maternity protections are some of the worst in the world.

It is an inexplicable situation, given that WHO says if optimal breastfeeding is achieved, more than 800,000 children’s lives would be saved each year and there would be an estimated reduction in global healthcare costs of US$300 billion.

Liz Thomas breastfeeding Hong Kong
Photo: RSP Photography.

In a bid to change this, the organisation, in conjunction with UNICEF is calling on employers to adopt family-friendly policies – including paid maternity leave for a minimum of 18 weeks, and preferably, for a period of six months – as well as paid paternity leave.

The message of World Breastfeeding Week 2019 (August 1 to 7) is that we are collectively responsible for empowering parents and enabling breastfeeding. Improving breastfeeding rates is not just down to women, it is an economic issue, it is a public health issue, it is a social justice issue, and it is down to us all.

In Hong Kong, the #Ittasteslikelove campaign is bringing restaurants, bars, gyms, salons, and the community as a whole together to stand up for breastfeeding women.

So far, around 100 companies, including international brands such as Pret A Manger, Maximal Concepts, Frites, and Black Sheep Restaurants, as well as well-loved local firms such as Beef & Liberty, Caffe Habitu, Glow Spa, Kapuhala, Hemingways, and MANA! are backing the campaign.

The aim is simply for mothers to be able to breastfeed, however, wherever and whenever they need. That they should do so free from harassment and disapproval should be the bare minimum expected of a civilised city, but far better if we can end the stigma surrounding public nursing, and ensure parents feel encouraged, at ease and welcome rather than shamed or treated with contempt.

Liz Thomas is the founder of #Ittasteslikelove, Hong Kong’s normalise breastfeeding campaign. Find out more on Facebook and Instagram.

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Guest contributors for Hong Kong Free Press.