Breastfeeding advocate retires

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Norway’s internationally renowned obstetrician and breastfeeding advocate Dr Gro Nylander is retiring this week after a long career, but she’s not leaving without voicing her concerns. She fears a shift towards shorter maternity leave in Norway could lead to a drop in the number of women breastfeeding, and claims that increased paternity leave is a setback for women’s rights. 

Dr Gro Nylander has been Norway's foremost advocate of breastfeeding for decades, but now is retiring from Oslo University Hospital at the age of 70. PHOTO: Oslo universitetssykehus

Dr Gro Nylander has been Norway’s foremost advocate of breastfeeding for decades, but now is retiring from Oslo University Hospital at the age of 70. PHOTO: Oslo universitetssykehus

Norwegian women rank among the highest in the world for breastfeeding their infants, but Nylander now fears that’s changing with newer rules that earmark more time at home for fathers and less for mothers. The rules are aimed at transferring more responsibility of a child’s upbringing to the fathers, but also at giving women equal opportunities in their professional lives.

Fathers and mothers in Norway share up to 14 months off, with 12 weeks earmarked for the father. This means that if the father does not take these 12 weeks, they cannot be transferred to the mother. Mothers also have 12 weeks earmarked in addition to three weeks prior to the birth. The law allows in theory for the father to take all or part of the remaining 30 weeks, previously earmarked only for the mother, but this is up to each family to decide, and most families still choose these weeks for the mother.

A breastfeeding ‘guru’
Nylander, age 70, is a national “guru” within the fields of pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding and raising children, and has written several books about these topics, also widely published internationally. She has been actively engaged in promoting the benefits of breastfeeding and was behind a 1993 movie called Breast is best, released in 50 countries. However, she has also created heated debate and been accused of making mothers who do not breastfeed feel inadequate. Nylander herself had problems breastfeeding her own first-born baby.

“We have indications pointing to a decline in Norway,” Nylander told newspaper Aftenposten about the number of women breastfeeding, adding her two reasons for concern: Shorter time in hospital after childbirth, often with the mother returning home before producing milk, and increasingly less maternity leave assigned.

“Mothers who because of breastfeeding and childbirth need to stay at home should have the primary right to do so for a minimum of eight months,” Nylander said. “The combination of fewer days in hospital and shorter assigned maternity leave is not good.”

Nylander called it a paradox that health authorities in Norway recommend breast milk exclusively for the baby’s first six months and breastfeeding for at least a year in total, yet do not prioritize mothers when leave is assigned.

“In many areas, this is a setback for women’s rights,” said Nylander, who has taken an active part in the voluntary organization “Breastfeeding help,” a mother-to-mother support group, working for a breastfeeding-friendly society.

Paid leave to breastfeed
Inga Marte Thorkildsen, the government’s Minister of Children, Equality and Social Inclusion, told Aftenposten she isn’t worried about Norwegian women’s breastfeeding habits but nonetheless is working on a proposal about paid leave to breastfeed for all women.

Thorkildsen said that although breastfeeding has important benefits, some women do not breastfeed for various reasons and that care must be taken not to let these women feel the pressure that this is something they have to do.

Thorkildsen said women’s financial independence and free choice are important for gender equality, which makes it important for both women and men to combine family and a career more easily.

Views and News from Norway/Aasa Christine Stoltz

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