While the benefits of breastfeeding are widely recognised, a new report has found the numbers of new mothers in Cambodia doing so declining, while another highlights the negative impacts of this on the Kingdom’s economy.

The 2021-2022 Cambodia Demographic and Health Survey (2021-22 CDHS) shows a decline in early breastfeeding from 66 to 54 per cent over the past decade, with a reduction in exclusive breastfeeding from 74 to 52 per cent.

Experts state that women benefit greatly in being enable to continue breastfeeding from encouragement of both their family and their workplace.

So how can families and workplaces play their part in supporting women to breastfeed?

Khy Nearyrath, a nutrition specialist at humanitarian aid organisation World Vision International Cambodia (WVI-C), said studies have underscored the significance of family support, particularly from the father, in ensuring effective breastfeeding planning from pregnancy through postpartum.

“We have found in previous studies that women were aware of the challenges they would face when returning to work while breastfeeding.

“Therefore, offering support in the form of increased awareness, consultations, and providing accurate information about the importance of breast milk can greatly help mothers successfully continue breastfeeding upon their return to work,” Nearyrath said.

The significance in terms of workplace support is even greater, she added.

“In accordance with the labour law, one hour per day is given for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk.

“If a mother is able to breastfeed her baby, she is granted one hour for breastfeeding, while an hour is allotted for expressing breast milk if she is unable,” she explained.

The Scaling Up Nutrition Civil Society Alliance (SUN-CSA) has also expressed concern over the decline in early breastfeeding initiatives and decreasing breastfeeding rates in the country.

In an April statement, SUN-CSA said Cambodia loses $326.8 million – equivalent to approximately two per cent of gross national income – annually due to the damaging health consequences caused by inadequate breastfeeding.

Around 70 per cent of women aged 15 and above participate in the labour force in Cambodia, it added.

“To elevate breastfeeding rates across the Kingdom, it is necessary to prolong maternity leave, create conducive breastfeeding facilities at workplaces and encourage family support for women returning to work after childbirth.

“This in turn will aid in promoting gender-equitable economic growth.

“The estimated cost of extending maternity leave up to 180 days within the formal work system is less than a quarter of the economic costs incurred as a result of inadequate breastfeeding,” SUN-CSA said.

Other relevant organisations – aligning with Ministry of Health guidelines – also advocate for extending maternity leave to six months, allowing women ample time to exclusively breastfeed for the recommended duration, underscoring the necessity for employers to create breastfeeding facilities at workplaces.

Highlighting the importance of breastfeeding, Prak Sophoan Neary – secretary of state at the health ministry – said that opting to not breastfeed and resort to substitutes such as formula exposes children to health risks including diarrhoea, pneumonia, asthma, decreased intelligence scores, diabetes and obesity.

“Let’s join forces to promote breastfeeding in Cambodia, as this will contribute to Cambodia’s pursuit of sustainable development and the goal to become a high-middle-income country by 2030, and a high-income one by 2050,” Sophoan Neary said.

SUN-CSA stated that extending maternity leave is an investment with significant returns, with many countries in the region having already revised their maternity leave policies.

“Vietnam has extended the maternity leave period for mothers from 16 to 26 weeks.

“Since the implementation of the policy, there has been a remarkable improvement in exclusive breastfeeding rates during the first six months.

“The rate has increased from 22 to 45 per cent, with urban areas also experiencing a notable rise,” it said.

Ry Sophors, an employee at a bank in Phnom Penh, said that support from the workplace, family, and the determination of mothers themselves, are all crucial factors in enabling women to continue breastfeeding.

“Although my workplace does not have a designated breastfeeding room, they allow female staff with small children to come to work half an hour later and leave half an hour earlier.

“Despite the limited time, I use a breast milk pump during that period, allowing me to continue breastfeeding my baby at home,” she said.

WVI-C’s Nearyrath also highlighted the importance of the mother’s husband or partner playing an active role in ensuring effective breastfeeding planning from pregnancy onwards.

Family support not only encourages women to continue breastfeeding, but also positively influences a woman’s psychology, resulting in increased milk production, while successful breast milk expression can also be achieved, she added.

One supportive husband, Koeung Sophea, said he helped his wife by providing encouragement and taking on household chores and childcare responsibilities.

He also looked for information on new techniques to increase breast milk production and accompanied his wife to consultations with doctors.

“Doing this allows my wife to relax more and focus on overcoming challenges. As a result, she has been able to continue breastfeeding to this day.

“I would therefore encourage all new parents to do all they can to breastfeed before even considering formula milk.

“Breast milk is the perfect food for babies and children in all circumstances – there is simply no substitute,” Sophea said.