Early childhood education and care services have an important role in supporting families to continue to breastfeed, as returning to work is a common reason given for stopping breastfeeding.
There is universal agreement that breastmilk is the best first food for babies. The Australian Dietary Guidelines (2013) reflect the WHO recommendations for exclusive breastfeeding from birth to 6 months of age, with continued breastfeeding and complementary foods to 12 months and beyond
Australia’s Health 2012 reported that although most babies (96%) in Australia in 2010 were initially breastfed, only 15% were exclusively breastfed to the recommended 6 months. The 2010 Australian National Infant Feeding Survey reported that 33% of women reported returning to work as the main reason for discontinuing breastfeeding before 12 months.
Supporting breastfeeding starts with the physical environment in the service. Mothers may be provided with a private, clean and quiet place to breastfeed their babies and express milk. The service may display culturally appropriate posters, pamphlets and other resources about breastfeeding.
At initial contact and orientation, services can demonstrate their commitment to breastfeeding by informing families about the service’s breastfeeding friendly policies, and by developing an individual breastfeeding support plan in consultation with the family. The plan should be flexible and regularly updated as the baby grows and feeding needs change.
Some mothers may choose to visit their baby during the day to feed. Services can support the family by planning whether this will be at predetermined times, or by phoning the mother when the baby is showing hunger signs. Babies may become unsettled if the mother is coming and going throughout the day – it’s important to discuss this with the family if this occurs, as an alternative plan may be need to be developed.
If a baby is to be fed expressed breastmilk at the service, the service can discuss with the family whether the baby has a preferred bottle or cup to feed from and what actions the service should take if the supply of breastmilk runs out before the mother is due to return. Families may find it helpful to introduce a cup or bottle prior to commencing care.
Sleep and settling is often cited as a challenge for carers of babies who are breastfed. All babies may need help to sleep and settle at times, but breastfed babies are more likely to bedshare at home and are less likely to have a special toy or use a dummy for comfort. Strategies to help settle babies who breastfeed include using a primary carer model, using a sling or carrier provided by the family, and holding the baby while they are feeding or sleeping.
Finally, staff members who are breastfeeding should be supported to continue breastfeeding on returning to work. Services should treat request from staff for support to continue breastfeeding sympathetically and reasonably, and all reasonable efforts made to support the staff member.
The early childhood education and care sector is ideally placed to support the breastfeeding relationship. By creating a breastfeeding-friendly environment, and working with families to develop individual support plans, services can help to increase Australia’s breastfeeding duration rates.
You can download the Encouraging & Supporting Breastfeeding in Childcare Resource Kit here.