Spilt milk: Educators’ voices missing from Breastfeeding Strategy consultation

On Monday, the Commonwealth Government released the draft Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2018 and Beyond for public consultation.  The strategy includes actions for the early childhood education and care sector, which may come as a surprise because the sector has not been consulted on the development of the strategy until now.

The strategy itself is long overdue.  The previous Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy 2010-2015 had ended, and the new strategy itself has undergone a name change from ‘2017 and beyond to ‘2018 and beyond‘ as the years slip by.

So, what’s in it for the sector?  The strategy recommends a pilot and evaluation of a Breastfeeding-Friendly Child Care program, based on the Australian Breastfeeding Association’s Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace accreditation program, while simultaneously building an evidence base to identify which strategies are effective in increasing breastfeeding rates through the early childhood education and care setting.

The opportunity to build the evidence base of what works in supporting breastfeeding in sector is welcomed.  There is a paucity of research into what quality breastfeeding looks like in the sector, and even less into what mothers perceive as supportive.  Previous research has pointed to the physical environment, proximity of the service to a mother’s workplace, flexibility in routine and communication as factors in creating a supportive service environment.

A program modeled on the fee-for-service Breastfeeding Friendly Workplace program would be little more than a marketing exercise for services.  Being accredited as breastfeeding-friendly shouldn’t be something services to aspire to be, because no service should be doing anything that might make it more difficult for a mother to breastfeed her child.  It’s illegal to do so – the right to breastfeeding is protected under federal and state legislation.  The problem with the approach of accrediting and marketing individual services as ‘breastfeeding-friendly’ is that it contradicts the responsibilities of all services.

However, underlying the provision of breastfeeding support in early childhood education and care is an uncomfortable truth – that not all educators are supported to breastfeed their own infants.  The 2016 Early Childhood Education and Care National Workforce Census reported 91.1% of the early childhood education workforce is female, with a median age of 34 years for female workers.

Enrolling an educator’s own child at the service they work at is not always supported.  There is minimal provision for paid lactation breaks for most educators, and there is an inherent difficulty in balancing the operational requirements of a service with the need for a lactating staff member to come off-the-floor to feed their baby or express milk.  Maternity leave provisions are generally limited to the base Parental Leave Pay, which can only be accessed by educators meeting the work test, which is not always possible in a sector with a large proportion of casual staff.

Early childhood educators already understand the important part they play in supporting infants’ nutritional and socioemotional needs, because they are core concepts of the National Quality Standard and the Early Years Learning Framework.   The Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2018 and Beyond has missed a key opportunity to establish actions to support the early childhood education workforce to breastfeed their own infants.

What do you think the Australian National Breastfeeding Strategy: 2018 and Beyond should mean for early childhood education and care?  You can have your say on the public consultation before 18 June 2018.

Emma Woolley is a Canberra-based health promotion practitioner with an interest in nutrition and physical activity in early childhood education settings.  She volunteers as a breastfeeding counsellor providing peer support to new mothers.

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