Breastfeeding should be so easy and so widely supported. It's natural, inexpensive, requires no special equipment, and lulls even the fussiest infants to sleep. For the practical minded, it's also staggeringly cost-effective. Individual households can save nearly $1,000 in healthcare costs during their baby's first year if the mother nurses. Nationwide, up to four billion dollars a year could be saved in healthcare costs, and $93 million a month in lower food-package costs if all women nursed their babies.
The potential savings to businesses are almost as large. Women who continue to breastfeed after returning to work miss less time because of baby-related illnesses and have shorter absences when they do miss work, compared with women who do not breastfeed. Working mothers who continue nursing also have higher morale and, perhaps most interesting, tend to return to work earlier from maternity leave, presumably because they're unconcerned about the effect of their return on the nursing relationship.
Why, then, is nursing so rarely encouraged or even allowed on the job? Only a tiny percentage of American companies provide new mothers with break time or with facilities for pumping, both of which are essential. A woman's milk supply is directly related to how much stimulation her breasts receive; in other words, the more a baby nurses, the greater her milk supply, and vice versa. If a mother is unable to breastfeed or pump sufficiently, she'll gradually lose her milk supply, which can result in her baby weaning prematurely. Also, if a mother is unable to express milk during the workday, her breasts will become engorged. This can result in the development of plugged ducts, which can lead to mastitis, or a breast infection, requiring the use of antibiotics and bed rest. In other words, she won't be able to work.
The best, long-term response to the issue of breastfeeding and working is national legislation offering tax breaks to employers who create a nursing-friendly workplace. At present, only the state of Minnesota has passed a law requiring employers to reasonably accommodate breastfeeding mothers, providing them with break time and a room to express milk. California enacted a joint resolution of the legislature that calls on all employers to support and encourage working mothers who want to continue breastfeeding, recognizing that it benefits the employer as well as the mother and baby.
On the national front, Representative Carolyn Maloney last year submitted federal bill (H.R. 3531), which would provide the most-extensive protection yet to working mothers, including one hour of unpaid leave time; a tax incentive to employers who provide a lactation-friendly environment; and an amendment to the Pregnancy Discrimination Act to clarify that it does apply to breastfeeding mothers. (For more information on breastfeeding legislation, see "Staying Abreast of the Law," Mothering, November/December, 1998.) While this bill hasn't yet become law, it does foreshadow the not-too-distant future. It heralds the inevitable arrival of a new, more progressive attitude on the part of businesses to nursing.
For many of us, the very idea that a boss would forbid or discourage a woman from breastfeeding seems ridiculous. Don't most employers support breastfeeding mothers who return to work? Sadly, the answer is no, especially among blue-collar and service-oriented professions.
Breastfeeding has skipped several generations, and many people today view it as a "lifestyle" choice, not a health concern. As a result, employers don't not see any need for mothers to continue breastfeeding when they return to work, viewing formula as much more convenient. Women bosses who didn't breastfeed their own children may feel implied criticism of their parenting choices when another mother insists that she wants and needs to breastfeed.
In this context, breastfeeding-support legislation is a positive step, a recognition by our government that breastfeeding is a basic act of nurture. Legislation also helps to change the public perception that breastfeeding isn't important.
But legislation is not enough. For one thing, it may not be passed for years, especially at the national level. In the meantime, women who wish to both work and nurse must find some kind of private accommodation with their companies, their direct supervisors, and their co-workers. This will require compromise on all sides. It will also require some tough-mindedness. Keep in mind that nursing must be perceived by everyone as good business. You aren't asking for special treatment, just for the ability to provide your baby, yourself, and your company all the benefits that nursing can provide.
How can you convince your boss to help your continue nursing? Begin by making a strong case. Tell your employers that the World Health Organization and UNICEF both strongly encourage employers globally to facilitate the continuation of breastfeeding when women return to work. In 1993, the World Alliance for Breastfeeding Action (WABA) even prepared a booklet entitled Women, Work and Breastfeeding: EveryoneBenefits! To receive a copy, contact your local La Lache League office. Get an extra copy for your boss.
Then sit down with him or her. If you're going to request an extended maternity leave to deepen your nursing relationship, be aware that in two recent federal cases, breastfeeding was discounted as a "medical condition" under the Pregnancy Discrimination Act. The requested maternity leaves were disallowed. Consult an attorney before seeing your employer.Most of the other nursing-and-employment-related problems fall into one of the following categories:
In all situations, take a friendly, helpful, cooperative attitude. This works much better than threatening to sue. Provide accurate information about the current medical recommendations and about breastfeeding's economic benefits. Look to see if your local or state breastfeeding task force has information on educating employers. Feel free to share information about US. If all else fails, you can consider a discrimination suit. But bear in mind that most such suits in the past have failed. Litigation and the judicial system are rarely going to provide as prompt a remedy as educating a few key people in a pleasant, non-confrontational way.
Most important of all, consider these issues while still pregnant and before taking your maternity leave. Look at what is and is not feasible. Try discussing the various issues ahead of time with your employer. Most companies are eager to retain and accommodate valuable employees. If you show your bosses how nursing is beneficial for them, they should be happy to help you make things work.
Written by: Elizabeth N. Baldwin, JD, and Kenneth A. Friedman, JD. Article originally appeared in Mothering: The Magazine of Natural Family Living .
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