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Cathy Carothers's picture

As breastfeeding advocates, we know the incredible impact the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) has had on millions of families across the nation. Day after day moms come forward ready to share the story of their breastfeeding journey, telling of the barriers they faced and the ways they overcame them, or what would have made all the difference. We receive stories like this one:

"I believe my twelve-week maternity leave was crucial to my breastfeeding success. My employer provided six weeks paid at 100%; then I continued with six more weeks from my "paid time off" (PTO) under FMLA. There is such a learning process that happens with breastfeeding and it can take time to get things off to the best start. I was able to relax and know that I would have three precious months with my baby for bonding before having to worry about transitioning to the demands of my career while maintaining my most important role as a breastfeeding mom."

With half of all mothers of infants employed, two-thirds of them full-time, it's no surprise that employment is repeatedly identified as one of the most challenging barriers faced by breastfeeding families today. Thanks to the FMLA, working mothers can spend those first crucial weeks not only recovering from pregnancy and childbirth, but also establishing a healthy breastfeeding relationship, without risking their jobs.

Study after study has affirmed the value of breastfeeding in protecting both mothers and children from a host of acute and chronic diseases and conditions, saving billions of dollars in health care costs each year. But many women who choose to breastfeed have to stop sooner than they want to (or are discouraged from even starting), due to a number of barriers, including lack of knowledge, social norms, poor family/social support, lactation problems, returning to work or child care, and deficits in health services. Far from being a matter of choice, breastfeeding is simply not accessible for many mothers and families.

"My employer offered to hold my position for 12 weeks unpaid maternity leave, and without that I would not have been able to breastfeed successfully. I am so thankful they were understanding and also gave me the opportunity to pump at work. I am eternally grateful to all the mothers who have fought to give me this right and still be able to bring home money to take care of my new family!"

With more than three out of four new moms initiating breastfeeding, we know that most moms want to breastfeed. The FMLA has laid an essential piece to the foundation of the landscape of breastfeeding support by helping keep moms and babies together -- but there’s more work to be done.

Not every family can afford to take unpaid time off from work, and not all employers provide the time or space for breastfeeding employees to pump during the workday. These deficits in employment support keep many moms from reaching their personal breastfeeding goals. Major policy and systems changes are still needed to ensure all moms receive the breastfeeding support they need and deserve.

Numerous studies have demonstrated that providing paid maternity leave for employed mothers increases the success of breastfeeding. The findings were so significant in fact, that The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding (released January 2011) included a call for states to "develop and implement programs to establish a funding mechanism for paid maternity leave", identifying the United States Breastfeeding Committee (USBC) and affiliated state breastfeeding coalitions as key implementation partners.

Later that year, the CDC Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity and the USBC co-hosted a webinar on state paid leave campaigns entitled "Time to Bond: The role of breastfeeding advocates in state-level campaigns for family leave", highlighting the role of breastfeeding coalitions in family leave campaigns in their state.

Over the past few years, the USBC has joined the Work-Family Coalition, signing on to support appropriations for a State Paid Leave Fund, sharing information through our network of national organizations and state/community coalitions, and attending the July 2012 National Summit on Paid Sick Days and Paid Family Leave. But we aren’t finished yet: the time is right for continued action and the USBC looks forward to future collaboration with the diverse partners brought together by paid leave initiatives.

With the passage of the FMLA 20 years ago, our sisters took a tremendous step forward toward helping families reach both their personal and professional goals. As we continue our important work to ensure that all breastfeeding families have the support they need and deserve, we must keep that momentum going!

To learn more about actions to support breastfeeding families across the country, join the conversations on Facebook and Twitter.

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