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Studies show that nearly three-quarters of women breastfeed their babies after birth, but that rate falls to 40 percent once these mothers go back to work. Why? Despite Affordable Care Act provisions to make workplaces more supportive of breastfeeding moms, returning to work continues to be a significant obstacle for women who opt to keep nursing, suggests a new study.
Breastfeeding has been shown to provide a bounty of benefits for babies, including improved immunity and a lower risk for developing asthma and allergies. So, it’s not surprising that many moms choose to follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and breastfeed babies for their first six months of life.
However, the battle to keep this routine up after a woman returns to the work force can be trying. “Returning to work can be a huge obstacle for moms who want to continue breastfeeding if their workplace is not supportive,” explains Dr. Emily Scott, MD, a pediatrician at Indiana University Health. “But with a supportive workplace, moms can be very successful meeting their breastfeeding goals.”
So, what are the ingredients of a supportive workplace?
Moms need a clean, private place to pump their breast milk at work, and this should not be a bathroom, Dr. Scott says. They should be able to take breaks every three hours to pump (successful pumping sessions typically take about 20 minutes, she adds) and also need access to a refrigerator to store their milk.
Additionally, says Dr. Scott, “The baby’s child care provider must be educated about how to store and handle breast milk and how to properly feed a bottle to a breastfed baby. Breastfed babies who are fed too much volume too quickly can have a hard time returning to their mom’s breast.”
Former President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act included a provision to make breastfeeding easier for working moms. The ACA required employers with more than 50 workers to provide adequate space and privacy for employees to breastfeed during their child’s first year.
A study published in September, however, suggested that compliance among rural employers was poor, breastfeeding information wasn’t well communicated and that co-workers and supervisors weren’t very supportive.
More broadly, past studies have also shown that a lack of support in the workplace has a significant impact on breastfeeding rates. A 2011 study published in the American Journal of Public Health found that workplace barriers contributed to low breastfeeding rates and that states with laws supporting breastfeeding at work tend to have higher breastfeeding rates.
A study published last year that looked at the impact of the ACA’s breastfeeding in the workplace requirements found that only 40 percent of women were able to take breaks in private spaces to pump milk. The women who were provided with both the time and space to pump were 2.3 times more likely to still be breastfeeding their babies at 6 months old.
The good news: Overall, employers are starting to realize that establishing supportive environment for workers who are breastfeeding is good business. The United States Office on Women’s Health points out that research has shown that supportive breastfeeding programs can increase employee retention, boost morale and cut down on absenteeism.
Although Indiana has several organizations that advocate for breastfeeding moms, Dr. Scott says, despite that, only 39 percent of Indiana moms are exclusively breastfeeding at 6 months, and only 21 percent of moms are breastfeeding at 12 months.
“We still have a long way to go in Indiana to meet our goals,” she says.
-- By Virginia Pelley