Provide more lactation rooms and paid nursing breaks for working mothers: Louis Ng

Challenges of expressing milk at work is one of the top three reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) has called for buildings that contain offices and sited in business parks to have more lactation rooms, and working mothers to have paid nursing breaks.

Citing a local survey of about 970 respondents by the Breastfeeding Mothers' Support Group Singapore this year, Mr Ng said in Parliament on Tuesday (Aug 2) that eight in 10 working mothers said one of the things they need most is a lactation room.

The same survey found that the challenges of expressing milk at work is one of the top three reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding.

In his adjournment motion, Mr Ng said: "Dedicated lactation rooms are the best way to facilitate breastfeeding. Today, too many mothers are forced to use undignified spaces like toilets or storerooms. Such mixed-use spaces are often dirty or disruptive, and the stress can block mothers from expressing milk."

Currently, the Ministry of National Development requires one lactation room for buildings with a gross floor area of 10,000 sq m or more.

Mr Ng proposed that the Government lower this threshold so that more buildings are required to have such a room.

Larger buildings with a higher gross floor area should also have more than one lactation room, he said.

He also proposed that lactation breaks be legislated. Two-thirds of working mothers in the survey he referred to said they do not have time at work to express milk. On average, a session of expressing milk takes 20 to 30 minutes.

Singapore is among the minority of countries that do not provide paid lactation breaks, he said, citing a 2020 report by the International Baby Food Action Network on 97 countries that found that 73 per cent of them had laws for such breaks.

"Legislating paid lactation breaks can spark a broader conversation about how expressing milk can be normalised and supported at the workplace," he said, and it is not mutually exclusive with building trust and encouraging employers.

While some might say that flexible work arrangements help breastfeeding mothers, working from home is not an option for everyone, and many mothers have returned to offices in recent months, he added.

Acknowledging the progress made over the years, Mr Ng said various ministries and organisations have done more to support breastfeeding mothers at the workplace.

He noted that based on local studies, the rate of exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months has grown from 1 per cent in 2011 to 38.2 per cent in 2019.

Still, 20 per cent of women of working age are not in the labour force, he said, and more can be done to ease the transition for those who are breastfeeding back to the workforce.

A more inclusive workplace with greater support for this group of mothers might make it easier for them to re-enter or remain in work, he added.

In response, Second Minister for National Development Indranee Rajah said building requirements for lactation rooms have expanded over the years, as a result of regular reviews of the Code on Accessibility in the Built Environment.

The last review that led to the latest lactation room requirement in 2020 took two years and was carried out by a committee, which had considered that the demand for such facilities will vary depending on each building's user profile, she said.

"For example, the premises of a company that employs more women of child-bearing age will need to have more lactation facilities. On the other hand, it may be impractical for a small building to have a room permanently set aside for lactation due to space constraints."

The committee thus had to strike a balance between the need for such facilities and the buildings' constraints, especially with older and smaller buildings, said Ms Indranee, adding that Mr Ng's feedback will be taken into consideration for the code's next review which starts next year.

She said the Building and Construction Authority has extended its Accessibility Fund in August to all buildings built between 1990 and 2014, which was when requirements for family-friendly features were first introduced.

Under this fund, building owners who wish to retrofit their buildings with such facilities can get co-funding of up to 60 per cent of the construction cost.

Ms Indranee said it is in employers' interests to take care of the needs of their employees, including nursing mothers, as this improves staff retention and morale.

"It is also important that co-workers support one another, especially through difficult periods such as when mothers return to work," she said.

Fostering a more inclusive work culture will require mindset shifts and support from colleagues, supervisors and the wider community, she added.

Join ST's WhatsApp Channel and get the latest news and must-reads.