Breastfeeding moms in the US have much to celebrate during this year’s World Breastfeeding week. Women pregnant when the US Department of Labor passed last year’s “Break Time for Nursing Mother’s” provision can now take full advantage of the law which requires employers to provide both a reasonable break time and place for employees to pump or otherwise express breast milk. In addition, a 2011 ruling by the IRS enables breastfeeding families to use pretax money from their flexible spending accounts to purchase pumps and other breastfeeding supplies.
Furthermore, good news has been released regarding the benefits of breastfeeding for both mom and baby. Results from a study by the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of Medicine show that breastfeeding may lower a mother’s risk of Type 2 Diabetes. And in a review of 288 studies on breastfeeding and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) data, researchers conclude in July’s issue of Pediatrics that breastfeeding protects against SIDS.
For today’s moms, unlike past generations, breastfeeding is widely encouraged by both physicians and the media alike. Celebrities are frequently heard boasting about the many reasons they love nursing (weight loss! bonding! ease of use!) and some even pose for photos with baby at breast. Indeed breastfeeding is very much in vogue. And with Michelle Obama incorporating it into her campaign to reduce childhood obesity, it has seldom been as topical.
Breastfeeding is such a positive experience for most of the nursing moms at Yummy Mummy, the breastfeeding store I own and run, that many of my moms are unable to fight back tears when they think about their inevitable return to work and the prospect of pumping for their baby rather than breastfeeding. Pumping at works enables mothers to breastfeed for as long they wish even though they are separated from their baby. And many of my moms pump and breastfeed or exclusively pump very successfully. But pumping at work requires dedication. It also takes time and coordination that some working mothers feel is hard to find.
It is no secret that maternity leave durations in the US are much shorter than others around the world. In the US, the average mother is permitted just six weeks of time off and, because most often the time off is unpaid, many moms can’t afford to take any leave at all. Compare this to the subsidized 4 years both moms and dads can enjoy in the Czech Republic and the 16 months both parents are entitled to in Sweden.
In a new study by Pediatrics, researchers found that less than 65% of women who took shorter maternity leaves (one to six weeks) tried breastfeeding while close to 75% of women with longer maternity leaves (around 13 weeks) attempted to breastfeed. Countries with longer maternity leave practices, like Sweden, enjoy some of the highest breastfeeding rates in the world with initiation rates in Sweden close to 100%. Unfortunately, many mothers in the US are giving up before even trying.
The Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) breastfeeding objectives published in its Healthy People 2020 include increasing the percentage of mothers who breastfeed at six months and mothers who breastfeed exclusively at six months as well as reducing formula supplementation at birth and enhancing lactation support within hospitals and the workplace.
As important as the CDC’s guidelines are, for improved breastfeeding participation, especially among working moms, it will be difficult for the US to meet these goals without a new and enlightened maternity leave policy. Quite simply, the US’ six-week maternity leave is no formula for increasing breastfeeding norms to 6 months.