Breastfeeding at work, a commitment to equality

Rebecca Suimuna, a social worker, is breastfeeding her youngest-born, who is 15 months. — Credit: Magali Girardin

By Marianne Grosjean, Tribune de Genève (Switzerland)


Better health in the short and long term, stronger mother-infant bonding and a higher IQ. The advantages of breastfeeding have led the WHO, since 2001, to recommend this practice for “two years or beyond”, of which six months should be exclusive breastfeeding. In Switzerland, maternity leave is 14 weeks (16 in Geneva), which does not easily allow women to follow these recommendations. But that could change. Since 2014, new employment legislation to protect breastfeeding at work has come into force nationwide. During the infant’s first year, an employee must be offered 90 paid minutes – for a day of more than 7 hours – in order to express milk or breastfeed, at home or in the workplace, in a room adapted for this purpose. In addition to the advantages for the child, facilitated breastfeeding at work benefits women who might have hesitated about resuming their career, given that one woman in seven leaves her job post-maternity in Switzerland, according to the Swiss Federal Statistical Office.

What effect is this legislation having on breastfeeding? “It’s too early to say, since the next set of statistics, collected every ten years, won’t be published until 2024”, said Britta Boutry, coordinator at the WBTi (World Breastfeeding Trends Initiative) and consultant for GIFA (Geneva Infant Feeding Association). In Switzerland, 95% of mothers breastfeed their baby just after birth, and 40% of infants are still breastfed at the age of six months, of whom 26% are breastfed exclusively. 

The UN model
Some employers are setting the example, by aligning their approach with the WHO guidelines. Céline, an international official at the UN and mother of a six-month-old baby, explained that her (female) boss had made her aware of her breastfeeding rights as soon as she found out about her pregnancy. “I get two paid hours per day to breastfeed or express milk, not just for a year but until the child is two years old”. 

The City of Geneva also boasts that it goes “further than the law” by “not imposing a limit on daily paid time dedicated to breastfeeding”. A motion by the Swiss Party of Labour former MP, Annick Ecuyer, put forward in 2020 and demanding the creation of a breastfeeding room for members of parliament, is still pending. Her former party colleague, Maria Perez, was known for having breastfed her daughter for nearly six years. She expressed her milk “in the toilets” since there was no allocated room.

Challenges in the hospital sector
In many professions, however, the right to breastfeed is not so straightforward and depends on the management’s level of sensitivity. The hospital sector is one example. Getsy Mathavan, junior doctor at Geneva University Hospitals (HUG), remembered her experience: “I went back to work at 100% capacity when my youngest son was 5-and-a-half-months, in 2020. I was still breastfeeding him exclusively, and needed to express my milk several times a day without fail. During my first week, I was reporting to a (female) clinic director who was very committed, who thought to take away my pager when I was on my break so I wouldn’t have to stop and deal with an emergency. It was very different with the bosses who came after her, who weren’t attentive in that way.” 

For Britta Boutry, Switzerland must improve the training of healthcare workers who have contact with mothers and babies. She regrets that the HUG and La Tour Hospital haven’t renewed their “Friends of Babies” (HAB) certification, which attests that the establishment is investing in the regular training of teams to promote breastfeeding. “It’s important that the medical profession doesn’t underestimate the benefits of breastfeeding, and not just in the first four months”, the consultant said. “Some tend to advise putting a stop to breastfeeding when it presents the slightest difficulty. Yet when a baby is not putting on enough weight, for example, some key points need to be verified. Is the baby breastfeeding freely? Is his or her position comfortable? Has he or she been given a dummy? If the mother wishes to continue breastfeeding, we have every interest in getting trained professionals involved.”

While awaiting an application of the law for all types of breastfeeding workers, support groups led by volunteer mothers are playing an increasing role. The international organisation La Leche League has active groups in Romandy (western Switzerland) and Geneva. Their meetings are open to all mothers who are looking for advice, support or reliable information about breastfeeding. Because “the issue at stake is not just about health but it’s also societal”, according to Mélina, who is breastfeeding her 20-month-old despite being employed at the University of Geneva: “Letting mothers who wish to, mother in this way, rather than forcing them to wean their child to satisfy the world of work: that’s the type of feminism I relate to.” A vision that’s shared by numerous members of La Leche League, and which is at odds with that of Simone de Beauvoir, who saw in breastfeeding a form of slavery.

This article is being published as part of “Towards Equality”, an international and collaborative initiative gathering 15 international news outlets to highlight the challenges and solutions to reach gender equality.


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