China plans to have over half of the country’s infants in their first six months to be exclusively breastfed by 2025 and is introducing a series of measures, including protecting the rights of new mothers at workplaces, to achieve the goal.
Employers are prohibited from extending working hours of lactating women or assigning them night shifts so they can properly attend to their children, according to an action plan from high-level government institutions jointly published Tuesday. Workplaces are also barred from slashing salaries and welfare or firing female employees who are breastfeeding, while providing a 60-minute breastfeeding break to mothers with infants under the age of 1.
Exclusive breastfeeding — defined as the practice of only giving an infant breast milk without food or water — has been largely attested to have health benefits for both infants and mothers due to the nutrients, antibodies, and active enzymes breast milk contains. However, China’s efforts to promote breastfeeding infants, especially those in the first six months of life, over the last decade have failed to meet its target of achieving an exclusive breastfeeding rate of 50% by 2020.
A 33-year-old woman surnamed Mo, who works in the medical sector and has been breastfeeding her newborn for 10 months, told Sixth Tone that her workplace in the southwestern city of Chengdu doesn’t have a nursing room, and she’s using the spare conference room to pump milk instead.
She added that the one-hour breastfeeding break is also difficult to guarantee. Meetings scheduled late in the day often mean she needs to work overtime or stay back to communicate with her colleagues.
“The most basic thing for me is to ensure (breastfeeding) time and space … I’m not optimistic about the implementation (of the action plan) though, which involves employers’ interest,” Mo said. “Another question is who will supervise the employers, and how?”
A 2019 survey by state-backed China Development Research Foundation showed about 29% of Chinese infants aged 6 months or less were exclusively breastfed, lower than the worldwide average of 44%. Meanwhile, about 67% of new mothers had a 60-minute daily break for breastfeeding at work, though only 19% of the respondents had workplaces with a nursing room.
Experts have blamed the active marketing of formula milk for largely undermining efforts to improve breastfeeding. Mothers are more likely to rely on breast milk substitutes as they are exposed to more promotion by makers and sellers of those products, according to the 2019 survey.
China’s booming infant formula market amassed sales worth 176 billion yuan ($27.5 billion) in 2020, up 4.4% year-on-year, an industry report showed. In the first half of 2020, just around a quarter of surveyed consumers didn’t buy infant formula, with nearly 32% of them spending between 501 yuan to 1,000 yuan per month on formula, according to domestic market research firm iiMedia.
While the goal proposed in Tuesday’s action plan is in line with the global nutrition target announced by the World Health Organization in 2012, many women have raised concerns over the burden it may put on lactating mothers. New mothers or women in general often prioritize work, as unfriendly hiring policies often disqualify female applicants to save companies pregnancy-related and childbirth costs, amplifying sexist hiring practices and gender discrimination at workplaces.
The new plan has also pledged to raise awareness of the importance of breastfeeding. Authorities are encouraging more nursing rooms at companies and public places — Guangzhou became the first city to include this in a 2019 legislation — and ban advertisements of products claiming to be substitutes for breast milk.
Editor: Bibek Bhandari.
(Header image: People Visual)