How accommodating is our society to women who choose to breastfeed their babies?

Although the act of breastfeeding is not "illegal," women in various parts of the U.S. can be arrested for "public indecency" when breastfeeding their baby in public. As of November 2005, 12 states and Washington, DC had not enacted at least some kind of law regarding breastfeeding.

The U.S. Healthy People 2010 target is to increase the proportion of mothers who choose to breastfeed their babies for at least six months to 50%; the World Health Organization recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months. However, these goals may be difficult to meet since some mothers in the U.S. face challenges to breastfeeding. Many women view their return to work as a cause for ending their breastfeeding regime early. Even women who use a breast pump require 30 minutes of privacy each workday to expel breast milk. In the May issue of The Journal of Pediatrics, a commentary by Dr. Tonse Raju from the National Institutes of Health reflects on the continued barriers for breastfeeding mothers.

Most industrialized nations guarantee maternity leave for up to 16 weeks at 75-100% of pay. Norway exceeds that by providing up to 42 weeks of maternity leave with full pay or 52 weeks with 80% pay. The U.S., however, allows a woman 12 weeks of unpaid leave, without the risk of losing her job, during any 12-month period. Allowing new mothers more time off work may encourage the continuation of breastfeeding, potentially minimizing societal limitations. Although it might be difficult to enact a policy similar to that of Norway, the U.S. should consider what is needed to support women who choose to breastfeed.

Barriers to breastfeeding in the workplace include a perception of a disruption in job performance, lack of privacy for the mother, problems with insurance regulations, difficulty finding a daycare facility close to the mother's workplace, and the devaluation of the cumulative benefits from high rates of breastfeeding exceeding the potential inconvenience of accommodating breastfeeding in the workplace. It should be noted, however, that there are also potential benefits to employers, such as an increase in employee retention and a reduction in health insurance costs and absenteeism; this can contribute to a boost in both morale and productivity of all employees.

Dr. Raju reminds us that "Much can be achieved by educating employers and the public about the health and economic benefits from high rates of breastfeeding." Employers and mothers should discuss options that maintain an effective workplace environment while focusing on common sense, respect, flexibility, and accommodation for mothers' feeding choices. Dr. Raju believes that "our society ought to support breastfeeding as a natural, inherently humane, biological act, as basic and essential as breathing."

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This commentary is reported in "Continued barriers for breastfeeding in public and at workplaces" by Tonse NK Raju, MD, DCH. The article appears in The Journal of Pediatrics, Volume 148, Number 5 (May 2006), published by Elsevier.


Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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