Leading article: A nudge that may do little to help women

Monday 29 November 2010 01:00

That Britain is not a child or baby-friendly society by European standards is an oft-heard complaint with a good deal of justice to it. The hostility still evinced towards mothers who breastfeed babies in public, for example, compares unfavourably to the much more relaxed approach that our continental neighbours adopt towards this most natural human activity.

Andrew Lansley, the Health Secretary, intends to take on this cultural legacy of a more puritanical era, nudging it into a new, healthier direction in the workplace by giving women rights to take breastfeeding breaks at work and obliging businesses to set aside dedicated breast-feeding rooms.

British society "doesn't make it easy" for mothers to breastfeed their children, he has said, noting NHS figures that show a high proportion of mothers blame their return to work for the fact that they had to stop breastfeeding after only a few months.

Mr Lansley's words have drawn predictable cries of rage from some employers, complaining of a new, interfering, anti-business diktat inspired by Brussels; the idea comes shortly after the European Parliament voted to grant women two one-hour breastfeeding breaks at work each day.

All the same, people are entitled to question the practicality of the proposal. Unless all business start to provide crèches, it is not clear what women are supposed to do with their babies once they have finished these breastfeeding breaks, for one thing. Then, what is the point of two such breaks a day, when most babies need several?

Breastfeeding is not an activity to be undertaken in a hurry or in conditions of stress. If the mother is not relaxed, it can be hard to express milk. The idea is a curious one that a busy working woman can simply switch off a frantically ringing mobile phone, put the laptop on to "sleep" mode and then dart off for a quick breastfeed session that has been sandwiched in-between high-pressure meetings.

If the minister feels that too many babies are being cut off from their mother's milk too early on in life, a simpler reform might be just to extend maternity leave.

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