Making it easier for women to get back to work after having children has been the ambition of successive UK Governments. A £5m career break returner scheme was launched in the budget just a few weeks ago, with the Prime Minister telling the parenting website Mumsnet that it was neither fair nor did it make economic sense, for women trying to get back into the workplace to find the doors closed to them. At the same time, the Government has acknowledged the considerable benefits to babies and mums of being breastfed. So what does this drive to get mums back to work mean for them, particularly if their job isn’t a standard 9-5 Monday to Friday affair? Afshin Zilanawala from the ESRC International Centre for Lifecourse Studies has been looking at what working evenings, nights or weekends might mean for mums and children when it comes to breastfeeding to see if this should be factored into our thinking around helping women back to work.
In the last 50 years or so, many more women with children have gone back to work after having their children. The same time period has seen a huge growth in the service sector and it is these two economic changes, which have been credited to the growing phenomenon of nonstandard work i.e working evenings, nights, or weekend shifts. A 2008 report showed that nearly a third of UK employees work evening, night or rotating shifts and that 1/5 work on the weekends. About a quarter of employed mothers work evenings, nights, or rotating shifts and about 18% of these mothers work on the weekends.
In that time, anecdotal information around the benefits and importance of breastfeeding to a child’s early development and mother’s mental and physical health have been supported by an ever growing and increasingly compelling body of evidence. In short, children who are breastfed develop physically and mentally more quickly and are less likely to develop infections or be obese, whilst mums are less likely to suffer post natal depression or develop breast/ovarian cancer.
Given all that, it would be useful for policy makers and parents to better understand whether any particular work patterns or schedules are more or less associated with women breastfeeding and for us all to get to grips with how working nonstandard hours may complicate work and family life, and may constrain time with children that relates to their health and development. That’s where this research comes in.
Dual potential: opportunities or costs?
When I set out to look at this, it wasn’t easy to imagine a straightforward answer to this question of say whether working evening shifts might be more or less associated with a mum having started to breast feed or how long she breastfed compared with someone who worked weekends. There seemed to be a dual potential for each shift to make it harder or easier depending on how you looked at it.
Evening or night work might make it difficult to schedule consistent breastfeeding patterns. However, at the same time, these shifts might allow for dad or another caregiver to supply pumped milk if a mum is working odd hours.
Using information collected as part of the Millennium Cohort Study, which has followed the lives of children born at the turn of the century, we were able to look at more than 17,000 mothers and their children.
Mums were asked if they had ever tried to breastfeed and, if so, for how long. From this and informed by the UK infant feeding guidelines at the time of the survey, which recommended exclusive breastfeeding for 4–6 months, we were able to create 2 month bands for different breastfeeding duration e.g. ‘intermediate’ (terminated breastfeeding after 2 months but before 4 months).
When their babies were 9 months old, mothers who were working provided information about the sorts of shifts they worked and how often they worked them.
Breastfeeding and work
Nearly 70 per cent of mothers breastfed their child. Thirty percent of them stopped breastfeeding before 2 months and one-third breastfed for at least 4 months. About half of mothers were not working at the time of the survey, nearly 30 per cent were working a standard shift and one in five was working nonstandard shifts.
Looking more closely at nonstandard work, it was possible to see the prevalence of the different types of shifts.
An interesting thing to emerge when we looked just at work patterns and breastfeeding was that women who worked evenings were 70 per cent more likely than women who were unemployed to have breastfed at all. They were also more likely to breastfeed than women who worked other non standard shift patterns i.e. night or weekend shifts.
Women who worked evening shifts were also more likely than their unemployed counterparts to continue breastfeeding across all the different ‘duration bands’ including the longest. They were still also more likely than their peers doing other non standard patterns of work to be breastfeeding i.e. night, weekend and overnight shifts.
Evenings and breastfeeding
So what is it about evening work that appears to be ‘compatible’ with starting and continuing to breast feed (or vice versa?) Perhaps mothers working evening shifts have positive breastfeeding experiences and so keep on breastfeeding and working. Perhaps supportive and flexible working arrangements influence the decision to breastfeed for longer. Evening schedules perhaps have a less disruptive effect on sleep patterns than irregular or night shifts, leaving women feeling more able to manage a job and caring for/breastfeeding their children.
So perhaps evening work schedules have something of a unique role to play in child and maternal health when it comes to helping women back to work without losing the many benefits for them and their children of breastfeeding. There’s a lot more that needs disentangling here, but, nevertheless, food for thought!