Continuing to breastfeed after returning to work
When employers provide adequate support for breastfeeding and working mothers, they help to give young children the best start in life.
Breastfeeding is a mother's gift to her baby. For the first six months of a child's life, breastmilk provides all the nutrients a child needs, in the right quantities and at the right temperature. Exclusively breastfeeding infants from birth to six months ensures that they have the best source of nutrition, uniquely suited to their needs, which is safe, clean, healthy and accessible wherever they live.
Breastfeeding also helps to create a bond between mother and child, supports the child's mental, emotional and physical well-being, and speeds the mother's recovery from childbirth.
In the Tajik language, breastfeeding is also called 'natural feeding'. But as natural as breastfeeding may be, it is certainly not an easy task. In fact, it is often an incredibly difficult one.
Barriers to continued breastfeeding in Tajikistan
In Tajikistan, only 36 per cent of mothers exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months. For many mothers, breastfeeding is an everyday struggle. It could be a first-time mother who has been unable to establish breastfeeding in time due to a lack of support from the health system. It could be a young mother who has been made to believe that her breastmilk is not good enough for her child by the invasive advertising of the infant formula industry. Or it could be a mother who had no choice but to return to work immediately after giving birth, where she was not given paid breaks to breastfeed, just to make ends meet.
In an online consultation conducted by UNICEF with a selected number of mothers, women reported that the main barrier to continuing breastfeeding after returning to work was the lack of flexible or remote working options. Many mothers reported having to stop exclusive breastfeeding in order to return to work as soon as possible - often for economic reasons and the need to maintain the family's livelihood.
Under the Tajikistan’s law, a mother is entitled to 140 days (about four months) of paid maternity leave (70 days before and 70 days after childbirth). This is her right and employers should be aware of these benefits under the law.
While we know about barriers and challenges mothers face in continuing breastfeeding at work, there are some good stories to be told!
Back to work after childbirth
Bonu Boboeva is a 24-year-old young mother from Dushanbe. She is a data analyst and works remotely from home, where she also looks after her four-month-old son, Amin. Her working hours start when her son is asleep - he takes three 1–2-hour naps during the day - until then Bonu plays with him, goes for walks and does chores. This remote working option was offered to Bonu by her employer to help her care for the baby and continue breastfeeding.
In February 2023, Karina Karim, a recruiter from a Dushanbe-based company, called Bonu to check her availability for a job opportunity. Bonu was surprised when Karina invited her for the written test knowing Bonu was few weeks before her due date.
"I always knew that motherhood would not prevent me from continuing to work. I applied for jobs during my pregnancy. In a few cases, I managed to get a job offer, but as soon as the potential employer knew I was expecting and needed additional accommodations, those offers were turned down. So when Karina offered me the opportunity to work remotely on a half-time basis, I was more than happy to accept."
Bonu's work takes up to 10 hours a week, and most of her time is spent breastfeeding and caring for her son. Due to hot weather, Bonu is breastfeeding her son even more often.
“I enjoy every moment of bonding with my son. This bonding comes from breastfeeding, and I enjoy that so much.”
There are times when Bonu is asked to come to her employer's office for important meetings, and this is when her mother steps in to help. At home, Bonu is supported by her husband and in-laws. Supporting a mother to help her continue breast feeding is the responsibility of the whole family.
Tajik companies are open to supporting breastfeeding employees, they just need to know how
Karina Karim is a human resources specialist and recruiter for a Dushanbe-based company specialising in the development of AI products and services. A few months ago, for the first time in her career, she recruited a young breastfeeding mother.
"One day, the CEO of our company shared a LINKEDIN profile of a young data analyst. Among many candidates, she stood out to me. She was young and very experienced, so I contacted her immediately," - Karina recalls that the response she received from this candidate was very surprising- "I'm going into labour in a few weeks' time, but yes, I'm open to the job offer..."
Karina explains that the job market in Tajikistan is very limited and certain professionals are hard to find, especially in the field of AI. That's why, when she came across Bonu Boboeva, a young and experienced data analyst, she didn't hesitate to reach out and invite her to the written test. Bonu passed the test and when asked about a possible start date, Bonu said she wanted to start as soon as possible but needed additional support.
" We were prepared to wait for Bonu for as long as it took. I put a plan in place to integrate Bonu smoothly and slowly into our work routine, - Karina recalls.
At the moment, Karina says her company doesn't have a specific internal policy to support breastfeeding working women; they operate according to Tajikistan's labour code. But Bonu's case has inspired Karina to consider a range of flexible working options, not just for mothers, but for all employees.
In Tajikistan, where working and breastfeeding mothers are not yet mainstreamed, many employers don’t know how to support working and breastfeeding mothers and what kind of support to provide. However, I'm sure that Tajik companies are keen to support their female employees, because these women are first and foremost professionals.”
Breastfeeding in Tajikistan is guaranteed by the labour code. But what will help improve breastfeeding practices in the workplace?
To increase the prevalence of breastfeeding in Tajikistan, UNICEF and WHO are working closely with the Government of Tajikistan to update relevant national nutrition strategies, policies and guidelines - all of which aim to support and promote exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of a child's life, and continued breastfeeding up to two years and beyond, a critical window of development with long-lasting effects on health and well-being.
In addition, the Labour Code of the Republic of Tajikistan guarantees the right of mothers to adequate support during pregnancy and childcare. Mothers in Tajikistan are entitled to:
- A paid maternity leave of 140 days (70 days - about 2 and a half months before the birth, and 70 days after the birth) with paid benefits from the State Social Insurance Fund in the case of a difficult birth;
- Social security benefits for up to one year and six months of the child's life if the woman chooses childcare leave;
- Unpaid childcare leave for up to three years of a child's life, with job security from the employer;
- Part-time work during child-care leave with a subsidy from the state social insurance fund.
The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the process of digitalisation in the private sector in Tajikistan, forcing many companies to quickly adapt and adopt new technologies and the opportunities they offer. Tools such as Google Meet and ZOOM are enabling many Tajik working and breastfeeding mothers to start negotiating flexible working options to ensure uninterrupted breastfeeding.
Mothers in Tajikistan want more flexible working arrangements to continue breastfeeding
In an online consultation with mothers, UNICEF asked them what kind of support they would like from employers to help them continue breastfeeding: 43 per cent would like to be able to work remotely; 13 per cent would like to be able to breastfeed at work if a 'mother and baby' room was available; 9 per cent would like to have flexible working hours and 3 per cent of mothers would like their employer to provide a paid taxi to return home for breastfeeding.
"If you want to return to work after giving birth, don't be afraid to approach your employer and ask for certain arrangements. If you are a professional with the right skills and knowledge, employers will be interested in retaining you," says Karina. And Bonu agrees. "If you have a will to return to work and continue breastfeeding and caring for your child, set a goal and achieve it in small steps. Arrange your work and daily routines accordingly and never be shy to ask for help from your family members.”
Karina also emphasizes that it is extremely important for working mothers to keep up to date with the latest developments in their professional field. Flexible and remote working will help mothers 'catch up' and give their children the best start in life without compromising either.
For employers, Karina and Bonu also have a final message:
"When we help a mother to continue to breastfeed and care for her child, we help the child thrive, we help the family thrive and we help the whole community thrive. It is the corporate social responsibility of every company to support mothers. Plus, imagine how your brand perception and employee loyalty will increase!”
UNICEF can provide advice and guidance to companies wishing to make their workplaces breastfeeding friendly, and to better understand how to support working mothers who are breastfeeding.