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Why Work and Breastfeeding Don't Mix

A study in the June issue of the journal Pediatrics suggests that longer maternity leaves might encourage more new mothers to breastfeed their babies.

Ah, yep. Didn't we know that already? Then again, if you're going to lobby for extended maternity leaves or for more accommodations for breastfeeding moms, then I'm sure it helps to have a scientific study in your back pocket. The anecdotal evidence from thousands or millions of moms probably just doesn't cut it.

The researchers looked at the experience of more than 6,000 women and their babies, and found that:

  • Among those who planned to go back to work within six weeks, fewer than 65 percent started breastfeeding their babies.
  • Among those who planned to return between and six and 13 weeks, 75 percent started breastfeeding.
  • Women who were at home with their babies three months after giving birth were twice as likely to be breastfeeding as women who went back to work.
It's not about tax breaks and pumps
The hullaballoo around Michelle Obama's recommendation that women be able to buy breastpumps with pre-tax dollars completely missed the point when it comes to nursing mothers and full-time work. That breast pump is not the cure-all its manufacturers and some HR departments would have you believe, and the moms in the Pediatrics survey know it.

Forget that the pumps can easily run upward of $300, and the manufacturers warn users not to share them for reasons that are never quite clear (Some companies will help employees pay for them). For most professional women, I'd guess that it's not the money. Babies are expensive in a million, mostly adorable, ways.

It's the time. Say you have a job where you can conceivably duck out for three half-hour or 20-minute blocks of time every day, and say your employer provides a private space for you to pump. You're supposed to consider yourself lucky, and in a way, you are.

There's only one problem: How the heck are you supposed to get your work done? With a mewling infant at home, every hour-especially every hour of sleep-is precious. That time spent pumping could be time spent working, which means less work to do when you get home, which means more sleep! Add in the fact that most women make far less milk with a pump than they do with a baby, and the time expenditure of pumping becomes too frustrating for words.

So yes, I'm sure that women who plan to take more time off after childbirth are more likely to breastfeed, and thanks are due to the research team for quantifying it for us. But what they've really done is to point up how difficult this issue really is. If we believe, as a public health issue, that breastfeeding is important, then tax breaks for breast pumps, while certainly welcome, aren't going to help much. This study (and the experience of lots of moms), tells us that paid maternity leave would. At which point, I'm pretty sure corporate America, and maybe even the well-meaning folks in HR and the White House, would decide that well, breastfeeding isn't quite that important.

Do you think more paid time off would encourage more moms to breastfeed? And would it be worth the economic price?


Image of totally adorable baby courtesy of flickr user Lunchbox Photography
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor, and editorial consultant. Follow her on twitter at