To breastfeed or not?

A dilemma for Chinese working mothers

Liang Ruoqiao
Breastfeeding can help creating a trusting relationship between mother and child.
UNICEF/China/2011/Jerry Liu

02 August 2012

Only 28% of Chinese mothers breast-feed their children exclusively for six months or more. The percentage is even lower for urban mothers, with only one out of six urban babies exclusively breastfed for the first six months.

The reasons for such low breast-feeding rate are many. For mothers who return to the workplace, however, it is especially difficult to breast-feed their infant children.

"It is not realistic to be a breast-feeding working mother in China, either the working mother will have to give up work and stay at home to take care of the baby, or she know she's making a decision to put work responsibilities first and stop breastfeeding after resuming the work routine," said Eva Zhou, a mother and human resource director for a Fortune 500 company based in Beijing. 

Prolonged maternity leave still not enough

Three months ago, the State Council enacted a new law to encourage breastfeeding by prolonging maternity leave from 90 to 98 days, adding complimentary leave of up to 30 days for mothers older than 24 years old, as well as an additional 15 days for Caesarean section patients. The law also mandates a 15-day pre-birth leave.  Altogether, a working mother in Beijing will have a recovery period of a little over four months.

"I stopped breastfeeding after returning to work, at which point my boy had been breast-fed for over 5 months," an online comment replying to a UNICEF tweet on breast-feeding read, "it would not have been possible for me to breast-feed for as long as I did if my company hadn't allowed me an extra month of no-pay sick leave."

Yet a lot of companies are not that lenient. "For companies that do not care for their social image, no-pay sick leave will not be granted for new mothers." Zhou said from her own experience, "Foreign enterprises are better than Chinese companies in this regard".

Even though women make up 46% of the total workforce in China, working mothers are under a lot of pressure even before pregnancy. There are regular news reports of discrimination against married women who have yet to become mothers.

Other than that, from the first months of pregnancy, the would-be mothers' engagement in work is less compared with other colleagues. "In some companies, the management will consider women less capable members of the work force. For example, you couldn't send a pregnant woman or a feeding mother to business trips, could you?" Zhou said. "This basically means she will not be 100% concentrating on her responsibilities for at least two years, during pregnancy, during maternity leave and after returning to her post".

"And to be frank, new mothers' prospects for promotion are much less after a long break from work," Zhou said, "Their managers might find replacements who are younger, more hardworking and more energetic."

"We all know breastfeeding is essential to the health of babies, some of my female friends will quit their previous job so as to stay home longer for their babies," said Zhou.

Zhou herself breast-fed her baby for 11 months between two jobs. "As a mother, I want to give my baby the best I have," Zhou said.

However the stressful working life made breastfeeding more and more difficult for Zhou. "I stopped shortly after taking up the second job, even though I had hoped to continue," recalled Zhou.

"I have no regrets, I know I have done the best for my child," said Zhou.

Every mother can exclusively breastfeed a baby as long as they breastfeed on demand with proper positioning and attachment to the breast.
UNICEF/China/2011/Jerry Liu
Every mother can exclusively breastfeed a baby as long as they breastfeed on demand with proper positioning and attachment to the breast.

Changing trend

Breast milk provides the best nutrition for infants. Exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life (with no water, other liquids or food) is recommended by UNICEF and the WHO. Global health authorities agree that there is no substitute for the benefits that breast milk provides.

Yang Lan, a noted Chinese broadcast journalist and entrepreneur, and UNICEF China Ambassador since 2010, has used her fame to promote the benefits of breast-feeding, calling for women to "Make breast milk the first taste of life for your baby."

In 2012, the ninth year of her term as a member of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, Yang Lan submitted a resolution calling for support of breast-feeding mothers.

Specifically, Yang called for "support to women in paid employment outside the home to continue breastfeeding by providing them with more flexible working hours and on-site breastfeeding rooms."

More and more working mothers in China refuse to have to choose between breast-feeding and their job. They have come to realize the benefits of breast milk. There's even a new Chinese word, "beinai mama"invented to describe them, which translates as "milk-carrying moms". Milk-carrying moms pump and store breast milk at the workplace, then bring it home for their baby at night.

The rapid increase of "milk-carrying moms" has become a social phenomenon. According to, the biggest online sales channel in China, there were 2 million ‘milk-carrying moms' in China by the end of 2011, a five-fold increase compared with that of two years ago.

"The whole society needs to step up support for new working mothers so that they are not pressurized to give up breastfeeding before six months," said Chang Suying, nutrition expert, UNICEF China.

Both the government and the employers can do more. To take a few examples, the enforcement of newly-mandated breast-feeding breaks is still quite lax. There are few breastfeeding rooms in public spaces. Flexible working hours for moms would benefit the babies greatly.