The importance of breastfeeding is underscored in the recent Health Care Reform law, which requires employers to provide "reasonable" unpaid breaks for breastfeeding mothers to pump. And a study published today in the journal Pediatrics make clear the benefits of breastfeeding: If 90 percent of new moms in the United States breastfed their babies exclusively for the first six months, researchers estimate that as many as 900 more infants would survive each year, and the country would save about $13 billion in health care costs annually.
Which is wonderful, but without paid maternity leave, consistent workplace accommodations, or a way to implement the new law, how are 90 percent of new moms supposed to pull that off?
Dr. Larry Gray, a University of Chicago pediatrician, called the analysis compelling and told the Associated Press that he thinks it's reasonable to strive for 90 percent compliance. But exclusive breast-feeding is easier said than done, at least for women in the United States: According to BusinessWeek, "Of infants born in 2006, 43 percent were breast-feeding at 6 months and 23 percent at 12 months. Just 14 percent, however, had been exclusively breast-fed for six months." And as any mom who has lugged a breast pump with her to the office for any length of time knows, returning to work can make it even harder to continue to nurse.
Just 24 states, along with Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., have laws relating to breastfeeding in the workplace. (Massachusetts is not one of them.) In Allen v. totes/Isotoner Corp., Ohio's supreme court ruled that it was legal for Isotoner to fire LaNisa Allen, the mother of a nursing 5-month-old, taking unauthorized breaks to pump -- and for "choosing to breastfeed" (Leah at Working (on) Motherhood had a great take on the case at the time).
Companies often encourage their employees to take advantage of healthy eating programs and gym memberships, but when it comes to facilitating breastfeeding, many working moms feel like they're on their own. "I pumped in my car twice a day, there was no other place to pump," Andysmama wrote at Work It, Mom! "I have pumped in 10 degree weather and 90 degree weather. I work at a ski resort, and many times would have to walk a mile just to get to the car." Julie B wrote: "When I first came back to work, the only place I could pump was in a public restroom with an extension cord running into the closest stall from the nearest outlet."
"Obesity campaigns, diabetes prevention... why isn't breastfeeding included?" asks Gina Ciagne, a certified lactation counselor and director of Breastfeeding and Consumer Relations at Lansinoh Laboratories who blogs at By Moms For Moms. "We really don't make it that easy. It's possible, but the burden is shifted on to the moms -- you find the room, you find the accommodations, you talk to your boss. What about the moms who don't feel safe to do that?"
"Inclusion of the workplace accommodation language in the Health Care reform bill is huge, but it has to be implemented," she adds.
One thing seems pretty clear: If it's in the country's best interests to have new moms nurse their infants exclusively for at least six months -- and the billions of dollars in health care savings indicates that it may be -- then new moms should get at least six months of paid leave in which they can do so. The United States and Australia are the only two industrialized countries in the world that do not offer paid maternity leave. And moms in the Outback have a sweeter deal than we do: In Australia, your job is protected for a year, but in the United States new working moms only get that guarantee for 12 weeks.
For many moms, dropping out of the workforce simply is not an option, so let's not feed into the stay-at-home vs. work-outside-of-the-home mommy wars here. But weigh in, readers (Dad are welcome, too): If you (or your wife) nursed your child, how long did it last? Working moms, did the end of maternity leave mean the end of breast-feeding?
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.