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Hong Kong women are too busy to breastfeed, and not even the government can change that

Mothers breastfeed their children during a breastfeeding flash mob demonstration at a public place in Hong Kong June 14, 2014. The group urged the government to establish a breastfeeding policy to protect the rights of nursing mothers, the organizer said in a press release.
Reuters/Bobby Yip
Let it be.
By Echo Huang
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Hong Kong

In many ways Hong Kong is a marvel of efficiency, with world-class public transportation and few hurdles to setting up a business. But it has a ways to go when it comes to making life easier for one segment of the population: breastfeeding mothers.

Despite promotional efforts by the government, breastfeeding remains unpopular here. The city has few facilities for allowing new mothers to breastfeed in private, and doing so in public is frowned upon. Add to the mix long working hours, and Hong Kong won’t be excelling in this area anytime soon.

Only a quarter of mothers breastfeed their year-old infants, according to a 2015 survey by Hong Kong’s health department. And just 1.2% (pdf) exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first six months, as recommended by the World Health Organization. By comparison the rate in Canada is 26% , Japan 21%, and Denmark 17%, according to the latest WHO data.

In 2014 Hong Kong’s food and health bureau set up the Committee on Promotion of Breastfeeding. Last February the health department introduced an app offering breastfeeding guidance—though it turned out to be government’s least downloaded in the past two years (link in Chinese)—and this month it launched a TV segment called “Breastfeeding: Let’s give our children the best” to coincide with International Women’s Day.

But breastfeeding remains a challenge in Hong Kong. The lack of proper facilities is “a major contributing factor,” says Wendy Tang, secretary for the Hong Kong Breastfeeding Mothers’ Association, a local advocacy group. That’s especially true for hospitals, where newborns and their mothers need the most help, she adds. Queen Elizabeth Hospital is the only local hospital certified as “baby friendly“ (link in Chinese) based on international breastfeeding requirements established by UNICEF.

The dearth of breastfeeding facilities forces some mothers to breastfeed in public spaces, including parks and restrooms. In socially conservative Hong Kong, that sometimes leads to awkward moments or even arguments. Nearly a third of breastfeeding mothers said they were “stared at, being advised to breastfeed in other places or being complained about,” according to an April survey conducted by UNICEF Hong Kong.

In December, a local taxi driver took a picture of a foreign mother breastfeeding and posted it on Facebook, local media outlet Apple Daily reported (link in Chinese).

New mothers have also struggled to balance work and life. Under Hong Kong law, full-time employees are entitled to just 10 weeks of paid maternity leave, compared to 39 weeks in the UK. “Full-time working mothers and on-demand nursing mums face a pretty challenging situation,” said breastfeeding consultant Amy Fung in a March 18 interview (video, Cantonese) with local media outlet Speakout Hong Kong. “The job after work is a 24-hour one.”

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