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By Portia Wu, vice president of the National Partnership for Women & Families, and Megan Renner, executive director of the United States Breastfeeding Committee.

Every year roughly four million women give birth in the United States, and most of them (more than three-quarters) start out breastfeeding. 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 in health care costs. Breastfeeding mothers also report feeling more closely bonded with their babies—a factor which may lower the risk of postpartum depression.

Recognizing the important health, psychosocial, economic, and environmental effects of breastfeeding, today the Surgeon General called on the entire nation to support breastfeeding mothers. The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding sets forth key action steps and strategies for health care providers, employers, insurers, policymakers, researchers, and the community at large to remove the barriers that prevent so many mothers from reaching their personal breastfeeding goals.

For too long, women have had to stop breastfeeding sooner than they wanted to, or have been discouraged from even starting. Returning to work can present a particularly challenging hurdle to breastfeeding success. Without paid maternity leave, many mothers are forced to make a rapid return to their jobs after the birth of a child. To add insult to injury, many then can’t express breast milk at work. Missing even one needed pumping session can have several undesirable consequences, including pain, inflammation, infection, and decreased milk supply. Some women resort to restrooms or hide out in their parked cars, under pressure and without the time, equipment and sanitary conditions they need.

The Surgeon General’s Call to Action recognizes the need to address barriers to breastfeeding—including these workplace barriers. This is more important than ever, at a time when many more families are relying on mothers’ incomes. We applaud the Surgeon General for shining a spotlight on the importance of breastfeeding, and the policies and environmental changes that can make it easier for women to do so.

Fortunately, breastfeeding is already becoming more manageable, due to a provision in health care reform that guarantees millions of working new moms the right to pump at work. The Obama Administration is implementing this provision in ways that will ensure that as many moms, babies and families as possible will benefit.

The Affordable Care Act finally gives millions of nursing moms the support and protection they need: the right to privacy and reasonable break time to pump at work. The law targets hourly workers in industries including retail, food service and factories who often find it most difficult to take breaks and find safe, private places to pump at work. (Because the new provision amended existing labor laws, most salaried workers are not covered, although they may have protections under state law.)

In late December, the Department of Labor issued guidance clarifying the law and its protections, and requesting information and comments from the public. For the mother who otherwise would have to rush to her car during her break to pump, or negotiate for break time with her employer, the new protections are life-changing and long overdue.

These changes benefit businesses as well. Workplace breastfeeding support is a “win-win-win” for employers, mothers and babies. Employers that support nursing mothers not only help their employees transition back to work, but also reduce turnover, absenteeism, and health care costs, and increase employee satisfaction, loyalty and productivity. It makes sense: When working mothers’ needs are met, they are better able to meet the dual demands of work and motherhood.

The new law is a tremendous step forward, but we believe all working moms who are breastfeeding should have break time and appropriate spaces to pump at work. So we are delighted that the Surgeon General is spearheading this effort to improve support for breastfeeding mothers. President Obama is also leading the way, by directing federal agencies to extend the right to pump at work to all new mothers, not just those who are paid on an hourly basis. This sets an important example for state and local governments as well as private sector employers.

The Obama Administration has taken concrete action to support new mothers and make it easier for them to function in their dual roles as both caregivers and breadwinners. Today’s Call to Action reinforces the critical need to ensure breastfeeding is truly an option for all mothers. Now, we call on all employers to take the basic steps to make it possible for new mothers to breastfeed their babies. That would be real family values at work.

Cross-posted at the National Partnership for Women & Families.

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