I exclusively breastfed my two daughters for the first six months of their lives and continued breastfeeding them until they were almost two. Of course the environment in my home country Sweden was extremely conducive, with breastfeeding seen as the most obvious and natural way of feeding babies and young children.
Working mothers were allowed up to nine months' fully-paid maternity leave to be able to continue breastfeeding and care for their child. This was nothing out of the ordinary and breastfeeding was considered the norm. I later found out that this is not the case in many other countries around the world, where working mothers still struggle to offer their babies the best start in life.
In Vietnam, women are currently entitled to 16 weeks paid maternity leave. However, recent studies have found that inadequate maternity leave may in fact be denying babies their right to their mother's milk, and is one of the reasons why only one in five infants are exclusively breastfed for the first six months in Vietnam.
This summer a groundbreaking survey of female employees, employers and Trade Union representatives on breastfeeding practices and the proposal to extend maternity leave to six months was conducted by the Vietnam General Federation of Labor, with support from the NGO Alive & Thrive.
More than 1,200 women workers, 150 employers, and 150 Trade Union representatives in 12 provinces were interviewed. The survey found that "going back to work" was the primary reason cited by working mothers for stopping breastfeeding. It also revealed that nine out of ten female workers want six months of maternity leave. And four out of five employers and Trade Union representatives agreed with the proposal to increase maternity leave to six months.
In addition, more than one in five employers shared the view that extending maternity leave would meet the needs of their female employees, since the women in their companies often asked for an extra one to two months' leave without pay, beyond the four months already provided.
Economic returns of breastfeeding exclusively
Vietnam has experienced significant economic growth in the last decade, yet malnutrition among children under five persists. One in five Vietnamese children under the age of five is underweight and one in three is stunted, which means they are too short for their age. Good feeding practices during the first two years of life can have measurable, life-long impacts on a child's growth, development, educational achievements, and even on their future economic status.
Breastfed babies typically need fewer hospital visits and prescriptions and have a lower risk of infections and diseases, including diarrhea, pneumonia, asthma, and ear and respiratory infections. Not breastfeeding may also increase the risk of childhood obesity, types I and II diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. Additionally, mothers who breastfeed have a lower risk of contracting type II diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression.
Vietnam is mobilizing all resources for social and economic development and also prioritizing maternal and child healthcare. This reflects the government's strong commitment to protect, nurture, and educate children. Providing children with the best possible nutrition during their first two years of life is a sound investment in the quality and productivity of the current and future workforce. This can be achieved only if fathers, grandparents, health workers, and employers all ensure that they support and encourage mothers to breastfeed early and exclusively for six months. Simultaneously, policymakers need to ensure that policies supporting infant feeding are improved, including the extension of maternity leave to six months.
Adequate paid maternity leave empowers mothers to be both good care providers and breadwinners. It must be our collective priority to ensure every single one of Vietnam's babies is breastfed exclusively for six months, as this will result in long-term and lasting economic, social and environmental gains for the country.
Maternity protection is not only the right thing to do to protect the dignity of mothers and ensure income security before and after child birth, it is also the ultimate recognition of a woman's efforts to provide what is best for our next generation.