My son was born last year. Luckily, we had no trouble with the big latch on. I savored every moment of bonding with him as he nursed. Three months after his birth, I returned to work. And then the trouble began. I grudgingly adopted my Medela Pump in Style. But the little one didn’t want anything to do with the bottles of “expressed” milk. Fearing a hunger strike, my husband, mother and father experimented with droppers and spoons – anything that would keep the boy nourished till mommy came home. Meanwhile, at work, I learned to accept my new mechanical relationship with tedious breast shields and a droning pump. Needless to say, breastfeeding was on my mind – all the time!
Today, a year into being a breastfeeding, working mother, I consider myself fortunate. I was able to take paid time off after my child was born and establish breastfeeding with him. I was blessed with the support of a family who helped me transition back to work after maternity leave. My workplace was more than accommodating. I was provided with a clean, private space as well as breaks to pump as many times as I needed to. And on days when my family had exhausted all options to feed the baby boy, my husband and father were able to bring my son to my workplace so that I could nurse him.
As they say, it takes a village. And successful breastfeeding needs the whole package. The place where a woman gives birth, child care options, family/community support, and the workplace – all influence how the breastfeeding relationship is established and how long it lasts.
Statistics show that nearly 75% of new mothers in the United States are choosing to breastfeed. However, too many nursing mothers are being forced to cut breastfeeding short (or not start at all). Why? The biggest reason is the need to return to work soon after childbirth. And when they are at work, nursing moms often find their workplace lacking in support to sustain breastfeeding.
My family and friends in India are often surprised when I tell them that the US has no maternity leave policy. It is a sad fact that the US lags far behind the rest of the worldwhen it comes to family-friendly workplace policies such as paid parental leave. Research shows that breastfeeding rates increase when women have longer maternity leave. And having access to paid leave definitely helps. A study on California’s Paid Family Leave program shows that use of the paid leave not only benefits a new mother’s ability to start breastfeeding, but also doubled the duration of breastfeeding for nursing moms.
Only two states – California and New Jersey – currently have established paid family leave programs. But the movement for paid leave is growing. Hopefully, more state and local governments will step up to support new parents where Federal laws are lacking.
And we have made some progress in protecting nursing mothers in the workplace. The Federal Affordable Care Act (ACA) of 2010 helped establish a national workplace standard to ensure nursing mothers have the time and place to pump breastmilk. The new law and diligent efforts of breastfeeding advocates to educate employers about the business case for lactation accommodation policiesmakes me optimistic that more nursing mothers will continue breastfeeding after they return to work.
Vibhuti Mehra is the Communications & Development Director at the Labor Project for Working Families.