Wednesday, 30 November 2011

#12 Breastfeeding on the job

FACT OF THE DAY: Us ‘modern day mothers’ are not the only ones having to juggle breastfeeding with going back to work

Today I’m going to add to a previous post #8  about some superhuman Nepali women living in the foothills of the Himalayas who carry enormously heavy bundles of firewood during their pregnancies.(

Equally impressive was the lengths the researcher (Catherine Panter-Brick) was prepared to go to, to see these women's breastfeeding habits were affected by their work and way of life. She spent a year in this village, keeping a minute by minute record of the activities of 58 village women, observing each of them for several days during 4 different seasons of the year. That’s dedication! (She is now Professor of Anthropology at Durham University, so I guess her dedication paid off).

I had naively thought that the difficulties of combining work and motherhood were new issues for women in the past 50 years. I somehow assumed that pre Women’s Lib, mothers stayed at home and looked after the children, and I probably thought that it was the same around the world. I hadn’t even really thought about the fact that women in other cultures have been ‘going back to work’ after having their babies for centuries (a necessity if their family are to have enough food to eat).

Next time you and your friends are discussing the difficulties of going back to work while breastfeeding, spare a thought for these Nepali women and feel reassured that your problem is as old as the hills.

So, among these Nepali women, how does a mother’s work affect her breastfeeding patterns?

Given that its pretty tricky to have a baby around in most Western workplaces, women in our culture who want to keep breastfeeding after they return to work have two main options. It either involves a whole lot of expressing and ferrying bottles of breastmilk to and from work in freezerbags, or arranging for whoever is looking after the baby to bring it to them at regular intervals to be fed – workplaces in the UK are all meant to have a private breastfeeding area.

I’m sure some women manage, but you’d have to be pretty dedicated. Among my friends, I think everyone aimed to stop daytime breastfeeding by the time they returned to work.

Back in our Nepali village, formula or bottle feeding is not an option - the women simply have to keep breastfeeding their babies. When it comes to combining work with breastfeeding, the options depend on their way of life.

There are two distinct cultural groups in this village;

- Tamang, the majority of the villagers who farm crops and animals for a living (both the men and women).

- Kami, a smaller group who are less egalitarian, the men are blacksmiths supplying farming tools to the Tamang, and the women mostly work inside or near the house.

A heavily burdened Nepali woman
Tamang woman returning to work usually a week or two after giving birth normally carries the baby in a basket on her back with her to work (the fields are quite far outside the village, up some pretty precarious paths) and breastfeeds when she has a break. 

Her only option for childcare is to leave the baby at home with an older sibling (any child over about 5 years is considered old enough for this – something else I was astounded by, especially looking at my own irresponsible 5 year old!). All able-bodied adults are out working during the day. You can imagine that when the mother is collecting firewood (the legendary 36kgs) then leaving the baby behind would be preferable. Although as is seen in this photo, some women combine the two.

Just hanging about - a Nepalia baby in its basket
The Kami women seem to have easier choices when they resume their chores after birth as they are based in the village. The mother can can look after the baby in the house while doing household chores, of if she need to be out of the house (in the kitchen garden or feeding the animals), shecan either leave the baby hanging in its basket with her husband who ‘works from home’  doing his blacksmith stuff, or with other neighbours who are generally at home in the village.

I’ll save you from the detailed results (which really are quite detailed – e.g. Tamang women on average feeding for 8.1 minutes, at intervals of 87 minutes, feeding her baby 9 times for a total of 60 minutes, 2/3 of feeds were during farming activities etc.).

Broadly, her conclusions were;

1. The type of work a mother does affects how she cares for her child; The Tamang mothers have to do this arduous farming work nearly every day of the year, and carry their babies around for years while breastfeeding them.  They barely have time to wash and dress their babies, and young children left behind when parents are out working on the fields are pretty neglected, eating cold, sometimes contaminated leftovers, which makes them seriously ill.

2. The type of work affects the mother’s ability to breastfeed. Women working the fields have longer intervals between breastfeeds than women who are looking after the animal herds (I guess it’s easier to breastfeed on the job while herding animals).

3. The type of work done by the mother’s family or community makes a big difference to the availability of childcare for her baby. The Kami women have plentiful babysitters in the village, whereas the Tamang women either have to take their babies with them or leave the children at home in less than ideal circumstances.

So apart from the specifics such as animal herding and blacksmithing, don't these conclusions sound familiar? I could apply each of them pretty neatly to my own circumstances.

Do you have any stories or advice about combining breastfeeding with going back to work?

*  *  *

If you would like to read more for yourself, have a look at;

Government advice on breastfeeding when returning to work;

About Catherine Panter-Brick;

About her research;
Panter-Brick, C Working Mothers in Rural Nepal in Editors Vanessa Maher (1992) The Anthropology of Breast-Feeding; Natural Law or Social Construct Worcester UK : Billing and Sons Ltd

Panter-Brick, C (1991) Lactation, birth spacing and maternal work-loads among two castes in rural Nepal Journal of Biosocial Science 23:137-54


  1. That is fascinating, but I feel uneasy with the idea of a 5 year old looking after a young toddler.

    Seems sad that these women have to risk their older children getting sick or put at risk of harm because they have to work.

    Also, I wonder if any of these women breastfeed the babies of other people's children? Having someone else around to share the feeding might be of help. Not sure how they'd feel about that in their culture, but I've read that some cultures do that.

    As for when I went back to work, like your friends I had my son weaned during the day (at 11 months) for going back to work.

  2. From what I've read so far, I think it is quite common for young children to be left in charge of babies. It seems to happen all around the world. I was suprised because I thought women would be looking after each other's babies, but I suppose thats not possible if they have to go to work.

    I have found examples of women breastfeeding each other's babies - maybe I'll do a post on it sometime. It seems to be common among hunter-gatherers and done informally. In sedentary cultures it seems to depend on the house set up, whether there are lots of women sharing a compound or whether they are more isolated. In some cultures its frowned upon, in others it creates a bond as strong as a blood bond.

  3. The "western" culture tends to train kids to be irresponsible for a lot longer than 3rd world countries. Our idea of a 5 year old is a lot different than the 5 year olds doing this.

  4. It's really hard to do breastfeed while working...
    It hurt a lot every time my breast got loads of milk and I need to pump it out!