Working for better health care in New Zealand

The Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS) is the professional association and union uniting doctors and dentists in New Zealand.

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More support and facilities needed for breastfeeding senior doctors

16 July 2018 Media Release - ASMS

“Breastfeeding senior doctors returning to paid work in public hospitals after parental leave need suitable facilities and enough time to express milk or feed their babies, as well as supportive colleagues and managers,” says Dr Charlotte Chambers, Principal Analyst (Policy & Research) at the Association of Salaried Medical Specialists (ASMS).

Those are key findings in a Research Brief published by ASMS and available online at The publication, Breastfeeding and returning to paid work; issues for ASMS members, summarises international research on the topic and discusses unpublished findings from research carried out by ASMS.

Dr Chambers says research suggests that many women stop breastfeeding when they return to paid work due to a mix of structural factors, such as the availability of facilities, and attitudes toward breastfeeding encountered in their workplaces.

“There are still significant barriers to juggling a busy clinical workload with the needs of a baby or young child, and these need to be addressed,” she says.

“Not all district health boards have policies in place to support breastfeeding staff, and they don’t all have a suitable room available that is private, comfortable and not too far from where the senior doctor is working.

“Public hospitals encourage breastfeeding for new mums in their maternity wards but they need to ensure the same support and encouragement is available to the people staffing those wards.”

The Research Brief notes that women have a legal right to breastfeed without discrimination under the Human Rights Act (1993). Breastfeeding upon return to paid work is also explicitly supported by section 6 of the Employment Relations (Breaks, Infant Feeding, and Other Matters) Amendment Act 2008.

Comments provided to ASMS by individual senior doctors included:

  • “My secretary had a fit because… I had 30 minutes blanked out in the middle of my clinic to pump and she…said, ‘How am I going to fit your patients in?”
  • “One of the reasons I was pleased my children self-weaned in the weeks before I went back to work [was] I know that as a consultant often I’m on my own in an operating theatre without the ability to be relieved frequently.”
  • “We don’t write the roster with [breastfeeding breaks] in mind,…the job is to come and to be prepared to go into theatre at 8am and be prepared to be in theatre until 5pm.”
  • “I don’t think [my decision to continue breastfeeding] was positively received by my department.”
  • “I could only ever arrange to express once a day…And I had to be able to do it within half an hour. Sometimes no one would come to give me a lunch break and I’d have to ring the co-ordinator. And I started to delight in the embarrassment of saying to the 50-year-old man, ‘Someone needs to come and let me out for a lunch break because I have to go and express breast milk for my baby’, and he’d be like, (adopts shaky voice): ‘Ohh okay, I’ll send someone.”
  • “I think it’s because it’s framed as a choice…it’s felt that (breastfeeding) should be optional and that if your baby’s six months, you know, that, ‘Why, why do you want or need to breastfeed beyond then because, you know, your baby should take a bottle?”

Dr Chambers says ASMS will share its findings on breastfeeding with members and senior DHB managers. It has started asking DHBs whether they have breastfeeding policies in place or a suitable room available, and the initial results are included in the Research Brief.

“As a country we talk a lot about the importance of breastfeeding for babies and their parents, so it’s up to health employers to really walk the talk on this,” she says.

“Senior doctors, like other working mothers, have a legal right to breastfeed or express milk while working, and ASMS is keen to see improvements in this area.”