Norway’s ongoing journey to optimize breastfeeding support

A woman breastfeeding.
Mothers in Norway are entitled to a 1-hour paid break for breastfeeding per day. Photo: Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash
 World Breastfeeding Week 1 to 7 August. The rates of breastfeeding in the WHO European Region are the lowest in the world. Some countries have been more successful in combating the unfortunate trend through a set of efficient social policies – and Norway has proven to be one of the leaders.
Known for its progressive social policies, the country has developed a comprehensive framework of parental leave and breastfeeding support for mothers, which continues evolving.
A woman breastfeeding
“I think breastfeeding rates in Norway are in general good compared to many other high-income countries, but the use of formula is higher than it should be,” says Dr Anne Bærug. Photo by 🇸🇮 Janko Ferlič on Unsplash

This framework came into existence as a result of the activism of Norwegian feminist groups and the mother-to-mother breastfeeding support group, Ammehjelpen, which have been advocating for the rights of working women for over half a century. One of the voices behind the movement for breastfeeding mothers at work is Dr Anne Bærug, a researcher and nutritionist from the Breastfeeding Unit of the Norwegian Institute of Public Health.

“We need to get the politicians and the population in general to understand that breastfeeding is actually a job that contributes to better health of children and mothers, food security and a lower carbon footprint. But, as all other jobs, breastfeeding takes time, therefore women should be offered sufficient time for this job. This is an investment that benefits society.”

Breastfeeding
“We need to get the politicians and the population in general to understand that breastfeeding is actually a jobs. ” Photo by Lucas Favre on Unsplash

Norway’s parental leave policy: a pillar of support

Parents in Norway are granted a total of 12 months of paid leave in connection with the birth and post-birth period of their child. The parental leave policy in Norway stands out due to its 3-part division: 1 part reserved for the mother (the maternal quota), 1 for the father or the co-mother (the paternal quota), and 1 period that can be freely divided between the parents (the shared period).

Each parental quota consists of a minimum of 15 weeks at 100% pay or 19 weeks at 80% pay. The last 3 weeks before birth and the first 6 weeks after birth are reserved for the mother. The shared period, offering either 16 or 18 weeks depending on the level of payment, can be utilized by either parent.

Beyond this paid leave, each parent is entitled to an additional year of unpaid leave for each birth, extending the bonding and caregiving period with their child.

Norwegian family.
As nations around the world strive to balance the demands of work and parenting, the Norwegian model offers valuable insights. Photo: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen / norden.org

The 3-part division of Norway’s parental leave policy is not random. It is meticulously designed to prevent long maternal leave from hindering women’s career and salary growth, promote shared childcare and housework, and foster the attachment between the father and the child. However, nearly half of mothers take unpaid leave after the paid leave, as they need more time with the baby and for breastfeeding.

Promoting breastfeeding at the workplace, mothers in Norway are entitled to a 1-hour paid break for breastfeeding per day, with some sectors, particularly the public sector, allowing up to 2 hours. But for women with shift work, it is often difficult to take advantage of this right. While the presence of specialized facilities may vary, breastfeeding in public is widely accepted and practised in Norway, which saves mothers from having to withdraw and hide to feed their babies.

Families in Norway
Families in Norway. Photo: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen / norden.org

The impact of parental leave

Since the introduction of paid maternity leave in 1977, Norway has seen dramatic improvements on a range of maternal health outcomes. Studies have shown evident positive dynamics in body mass index (BMI), blood pressure, mental health, and health-promoting behaviours like exercise and non-smoking. These effects were particularly noticeable for first-time and low-resource mothers.

On the other hand, the impact of the 3-part parental leave on mothers’ salaries and careers needs further scrutiny. Nearly half of the mothers still opt for unpaid leave after the paid leave, potentially sacrificing their career growth and seniority rights during this period. This underlines the need for policies that can balance career growth and enable breastfeeding more effectively.

Children with red apples. TPhoto: am Vibberstoft / norden.org
Children with red apples. Photo: Tam Vibberstoft / norden.org

The case for extended maternal leave

There is an ongoing debate about the need to extend the maternal leave to at least 36 weeks after delivery with 100% payment.

Dr Bærug argues that this could enable more mothers to breastfeed in accordance with WHO and national recommendations, including exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months and the gradual introduction of solid foods thereafter, while maintaining high breastmilk production. This not only supports food production, food security and reduced environmental impact but also helps reduce social inequality in breastfeeding, contributing significantly to maternal and child health.

Father and son.
Father and son. Photo: Mads Schmidt Rasmussen / norden.org

“I think breastfeeding rates in Norway are in general good compared to many other high-income countries, but the use of formula is higher than it should be. So, I would not say that our country is perfect for mothers and infants, because it is not. We are continuously working to present the scientific evidence on how breastfeeding benefits society and we collaborate closely with WHO/Europe on the subject to continue advocating for extended maternity leave and breastfeeding support. We have been pushing for extending the leave for mothers to 8 months, but it has been in discussion for many years and it’s going back and forth, as there are many different arguments to the matter. Personally, I think a quota for fathers is also important. But I think we must realize that it’s only women that can breastfeed,” Dr Bærug concludes.

Mads Schmidt Rasmussen / norden.org

As nations around the world strive to balance the demands of work and parenting, the Norwegian model offers valuable insights. With its innovative approach to shared responsibilities and a flexible framework, Norway has set a high standard in promoting breastfeeding and enhancing maternal support. The ongoing challenge lies in enabling mothers to manage their career along with recommended breastfeeding practices, as well as spending sufficient time with their babies during the first months of their life – a dilemma that calls for continued research, policy innovation and public discourse.

Health of the next generation

It is also crucially important to recognize breastfeeding as an integral part of the health and well-being of the next generation. Breastmilk is the ideal food for infants for optimal growth and development. It helps protect against many common childhood illnesses. Breastfed children are less likely to be overweight or obese and less prone to diabetes later in life. Women who breastfeed also have a reduced risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

With ongoing efforts and advocacy, there is hope that more countries will work towards creating environments that truly support breastfeeding mothers. This brings us closer to a future where breastfeeding at work is normalized and valued, and the health and development of our children is a priority.

(Source: WHO)