(WOMENSENEWS)--In recent years, our understanding of the benefits of breast milk has steadily risen above being mere nourishment to something akin to medicine or even a vaccine. Indeed, the U.S. Transportation Security Administration puts breast milk in the same category as "liquid medications."
The benefits certainly extend to women.
Women who breastfeed have a reduced risk for developing osteoporosis, breast and ovarian cancers and type 2 diabetes, among other health benefits.
This year's World Breastfeeding Week, which ends today, is feting breastfeeding as a life-saving intervention before and during emergencies. In line with this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is currently advising mothers to protect infants against the swine flu outbreak by breastfeeding and states that one of the "best things" mothers can do for babies who become ill is to continue to breastfeed. It is generally recommended to keep breastfeeding even if the mother gets swine flu, unless the mother is taking medication that could be passed to the baby.
The benefits from breastfeeding add up to huge savings in total health care costs. The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that we could save at least $3.6 billion in medical expenses annually if the number of children breastfed for six months increased by 50 percent. Some argue that this figure is more like $14 billion, if adjusted for inflation and other factors.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding, with continued breastfeeding for at least one year.
Barriers to Breastfeeding
There seems to be an almost magical quality to breast milk. It can increase children's immune systems and decrease their risk for all sorts of ailments, including asthma and other respiratory illnesses, bacterial and viral infections, ear infections, allergies and costly chronic diseases and conditions like diabetes, leukemia, obesity and high cholesterol.
But breastfeeding is often hard work for mothers.
Doing it for up to a year (as recommended) is difficult, even in the best of circumstances. For many mothers, particularly those who work outside of the home, it can seem to be an impossible task.
Over 50 percent of mothers with children under one year of age are in the labor force, many in low-paying jobs with no private offices, no benefits like paid maternity leave, no flexibility and no job security. All of that builds a major barrier to breastfeeding.
Not surprisingly, only about 12 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed for six months and 21 percent are still being breastfed at one year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Moreover, significant disparities in breastfeeding rates exist by race and income--known as the "milk gap." Like other "gaps," poorer women and women of color have lower rates of breastfeeding than their more affluent, Caucasian counterparts.
Given the significant health benefits of breastfeeding, the lack thereof is a public health dilemma.
Guilt Isn't the Answer
However, the solution is NOT to pressure, guilt or frighten women into breastfeeding.
Between 2004 and 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' Office on Women's Health launched a national campaign that focused on the negative consequences of not breastfeeding. This campaign included TV ads that likened a mother feeding her baby formula to a pregnant woman riding a mechanical bull--essentially equating the failure to breastfeed with recklessness.
True recklessness, however, is a government that makes those types of allegations without providing women with the necessary infrastructure--such as paid maternity leave, on-site child care, workplace lactation rooms and flexible work schedules--that would encourage many more women to breastfeed.
Currently, lawmakers at both the federal and state level are considering legislation that is a step--albeit a small one--in the right direction. The federal "Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2009" clarifies existing civil rights laws to ensure that breastfeeding and expressing breast milk in the workplace are protected activities. The act would offer employers a tax credit for investing in facilities that promote breastfeeding, such as pumps and lactation rooms.
California is also considering legislation that would require health plans that provide maternity coverage to also cover lactation consultations and the rental of breast pumps.
The costs associated with these services are minimal, yet they provide women with much needed help to solve normal issues associated with initiating breastfeeding. It allows women to express their breast milk in a manner more conducive to the scheduled and harried environment of the workplace.
Focusing on breast pumps and pumping in the workplace is a start but more substantive infrastructure changes--such as paid maternity leave, the norm in almost all other developed nations--must be the ultimate goal.
Cacilia Kim is a staff attorney at the California Women's Law Center. Kim received her J.D and Ph.D. in Developmental Child Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles.
For more information:
California Women's Law Center
World Breastfeeding Week 2009
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