A whopping 62 percent of U.S. women who deliver a baby return to work within a year, many within three months. Moreover, a growing number of new mothers today are embracing their doctors' advice to breastfeed their babies for at least the first six months of life.
However, the goals of returning to the workforce and continuing to breastfeed often seem mutually exclusive. Too many women quit breastfeeding after resuming work. Recent government data show that about 80 percent of new mothers begin breastfeeding. But six months after birth, only 51.4 percent of babies receive at least some breast milk and just 21.9 percent are exclusively breastfed.
National Breastfeeding Month
The benefits of long-term breastfeeding are so numerous that workplace support for nursing women has emerged as a prominent public health issue, says Patty Carlton, RN, a certified lactation expert with UCI Health maternity services. The issue also is a focus of National Breastfeeding Month.
"There is a strong movement supporting exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months," she says.
"We require all of our pediatricians, obstetricians and family practitioners to take the Baby-Friendly training so they are educated about the importance of breastfeeding." The Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative is a global program launched by the World Health Organization and UNICEF to encourage hospitals that offer optimal care for infant feeding.
Benefits of breastfeeding
Numerous studies have demonstrated that breastfeeding is best for baby and mother, producing both short- and long-term benefits, Carlton says. For the baby, breastfeeding:
- Dramatically reduces the risk of illnesses
- Helps a baby's brain grow and develop
- Helps regulate healthy bacteria in the baby's gut
- Strengthens mother-infant bonding
Studies also show breastfeeding can lead to a higher IQ and that breastfed babies have a lower risk of obesity later in life.
A study has shown that improved breastfeeding practices can save an estimated 1 million to 2 million lives per year, Carlton says.
"Theoretically, your child will be ill less often. For a working mother, that means fewer missed days of work, fewer doctor's visits, and less spread of illness in the family, such as flu and diarrhea."
For mothers, breastfeeding facilitates postpartum weight loss and even decreases the risk of serious diseases later in life such as osteoporosis, ovarian cancer and breast cancer.
Overcoming workplace hurdles
But too often women's plans to breastfeed their babies for six months or longer are undermined by difficulties they encounter in the workplace.
"Returning to work seems to be a barrier for women who want to continue breastfeeding," Carlton explains. "If you are a manager and have a private office, you can probably close your office door and pump. But if you're working in a restaurant, for example, it's particularly difficult. The employees have to work when customers are present. If it's 6:30 on a Friday night, taking a break to pump is not going to be acceptable. Teachers also have trouble taking breaks and finding someone to cover their classrooms."
Even when women have the time and space to pump milk at work, sometimes coworkers make things difficult, Carlton says.
"Sometimes the issue is the reaction from other employees," she says. "They may complain that breaks for pumping take too long or they don't want breast milk in the office refrigerator. Education is the answer. People need to understand that breastfeeding is good for society."
Legal protections for working moms
There is some significant progress on the issue.
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a private place (other than a bathroom) for hourly workers to express breast milk for one year after the child’s birth.
In California, the law requires employers to provide break time and private space for all employees (hourly and salaried) to express breast milk.
How to prepare for breastfeeding at work
But to increase the chances of successful long-term nursing, women need to prepare well before returning to work.
At UCI Health, breastfeeding women with questions or problems can call the lactation consultant office for help. Here are some tips from Carlton and the federal Office on Women's Health:
- Know the laws. Check with your employer's human resources department or check out the Department of Labor.
- Plan ahead. Talk to your employer a month or so before returning to work to discuss how you can continue to breastfeed.
- Be prepared to problem-solve. See the many good tips that will support you at the Office on Women's Health website on breastfeeding.
- Practice pumping before you return to work.
- Support other working mothers who are breastfeeding.