Most women prepare non-stop for the arrival of their babies, from taking pregnancy and birth classes to organizing a nursery. What they often don’t plan for is how a lack of paid family leave will affect nursing.
Breastfeeding is difficult for many mothers for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it’s due to a poor milk supply, tongue-tie issues or stress. But research has shown that the lack of paid family leave makes it even harder for working moms to breastfeed.
A note from Monica of Redefining Mom: This article was written by fellow working mom, Amber Roshay. I’m happy to feature Amber on this very important and desperately overlooked topic in the United States. Please keep in mind, while this is an article about breastfeeding, Redefining Mom is in full support of feeding your baby in whatever way works best for you. I breastfed for 3 months before switching to soy formula. Some of that was due to my return to corporate life, but mostly it was because my daughter did not tolerate my breastmilk. Regardless of your reasons, we support your choice in how you choose to feed your child.
For my first child, I wasn’t entitled to paid family leave since I worked part-time as an adjunct instructor. After I returned to work as a full-time instructor and found out I was pregnant again, I assumed that I would receive 12 weeks of paid time off. In fact, it was just six to eight weeks at 70 percent of my salary, if I had worked enough hours in one calendar year to qualify.
I was devastated. Would I be able to afford to take maternity leave? Would I be able to breastfeed?
I managed to do both, with help from my husband. But I was one of the lucky ones or so I kept telling myself. Only 12 percent of families in the United States have access to paid family leave. However, this benefit is usually only available to highly-educated males with well-paying jobs. Evidence shows that if women have access to paid family leave, 18 percent of more women will attempt breastfeeding.
Before we go over why the lack of paid maternity leave affects breastfeeding negatively, let’s discuss the importance of breastfeeding.
The Importance of Breastfeeding for Society
As research by the US Department of Health and Services and The Institute for Women’s Policy Research shows, breastfeeding has significant physical and emotional benefits for both the mother and baby. For women, breastfeeding reduces the incidence of ovarian cancer and Type 2 diabetes. Evidence also shows that breastfeeding moms get more sleep, and sleeping more increases their overall well-being and happiness. Even thirty minutes more of sleep a day brings significant benefits overall at home and in the workplace. There is also evidence that breastfeeding helps mothers lose the baby weight and reduces postpartum depression.
Breastfeeding helps mothers and babies bond. One of my favorite parts of my day was nursing my daughter in the early hours of the morning with her skin pressed to mine. With the demands of daily life and a toddler to take care of, taking the time to slow down and connect was priceless.
The health benefits for the child include reduction of asthma, allergies, and obesity. Breast milk also changes to match the needs of the baby by producing the right mixture of vitamins and nutrients. According to Women’s Health, mothers who exclusively breastfeed for six months reduce the risk of SIDS. Infants who breastfeed go to the doctor less, so parents don’t need to take as much time off. I was able to breastfeed my daughter until I returned to work. While she only went to the doctor for her regular wellness visits, my son, who I was unable to breastfeed, was constantly sick, making us regular visitors to the emergency room. In fact, research shows that breastfeeding reduces healthcare costs by about 10.5 billion a year.
[clickToTweet tweet=”Research shows that #breastfeeding reduces #healthcare costs by about 10.5 billion a year!” quote=”Research shows that breastfeeding reduces healthcare costs by about 10.5 billion a year!”]
How the lack of paid maternity leave affects breastfeeding
Being able to take time off for longer than a few weeks isn’t an option for most families in the United States even if they do have access to paid family leave at a portion of their salary.
Without access to paid family leave, some mothers go back to work as soon as two weeks after giving birth. Returning to work too soon will affect breastfeeding.
Establishing an adequate milk supply takes 6-8 weeks
If returning to work within weeks after giving birth, a mother’s milk supply might not be well-established. Usually, a baby will need to feed every two to three hours in the beginning. I know it felt like all I did was breastfeed for the first few weeks. I learned that if you’re away from your baby right when your milk supply is coming in completely, you’ll disrupt the production. Then you might have to turn to supplementation, which can eventually lead to not breastfeeding at all.
No place to breastfeed
When I returned to work, I realized that my university didn’t provide a designated lactation room to pump nearby. The closest place was a 15-minute walk each way, making each pumping session 45 minutes at the minimum.
Sometimes I pumped in my car in the parking lot with sunshades up to hide my breasts from students and staff coming and going. A fellow co-worker of mine sometimes pumped while driving to pick up her daughter from daycare.
Eventually, my university gave me an empty office to pump in, but this was only after the person resigned and the office became empty.
Lack of time to pump impacts milk supply
When you’re breastfeeding and away from your baby, you need to pump every time someone gives your baby a bottle. At a minimum, you need to pump at least two or three times when you’re away from your baby for eight to ten hours. So, you need to account for this time in your schedule.
Pumping takes time. When you’re working, finding the time throughout the day can be difficult. Sometimes it can be impossible to pump and make that deadline, or in my case the class I’m teaching in ten minutes.
But not pumping enough when you’re away from your baby will decrease your milk supply. And even if you pump often, the lack of stimulation from your baby will slowly decrease supply. Moms should have the opportunity provided by paid leave to nourish their babies at home.
Stress at work
Working can be stressful, especially when you feel like you shouldn’t take the time to pump. Sure, you could only breastfeed or pump on your designated lunch break, but in order to maintain milk supply, you’ll need to do this more often.
You might feel like your boss will not approve or that you’re missing out on important information or that you risk being perceived as someone who doesn’t contribute enough. Worse still, you may fear becoming the employee they make exceptions for and worry about how others might resent your time away.
What Can Be Done
Become an advocate for paid family leave and breastfeeding
Parents, especially women, need to have the right to stay home with their babies. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993 requires employers with 50 or more employees to guarantee unpaid time off and job security. Also, to qualify for FMLA you must have worked for your employer at least 12 months and within that period worked 1,250 hours.
Some states, such as California, have additional laws, such as California Family Rights Act (CFRA), which guarantees 12 weeks of paid leave at 60 percent of your salary. However, you must have worked for your employer for more than 12 months, worked at least 1,250 hours during that period, and have paid into the disability fund to qualify. Some large employers don’t have to contribute to this fund for part-time workers, so you might not discover you don’t qualify until after you apply for the benefit.
Recently, there’s been a push to re-energize the Family Act, which is similar to the FMLA but with the guarantee of paid time off at 66 percent of your salary. It would also guarantee your job upon return, apply to small companies, and part-time workers of any age.
We have to stop being grateful for the little we have for a select few and demand more. We need stronger legislation to ensure that all parents have paid maternity and paternity leave for 12 weeks or longer. It shouldn’t be viewed as a privilege for some. All our children deserve the benefits of having parents who can spend time with them in the first months of their lives.
We need to be advocates.
Practice what you preach
The ‘breast is best’ chant is a good reminder to breastfeed, but the realities of everyday life make it hard to achieve. Returning to work too early because of a lack of financial support, workplace conditions not conducive to nursing, and a lack of understanding by employers makes it hard to follow breastfeeding recommendations. It’s time we practiced what we preach.
Understand the benefit for society
Breastfeeding isn’t a selfish desire by the mother. Being able to provide milk made for our infants creates stronger and healthier babies and moms. Society directly benefits from this through positive social and economic outcomes. Breastfeeding is good for everyone.
Mandate a paid leave longer than 12 weeks
The first step, of course, is making paid leave available for every American, regardless of income level and background. But, I would suggest that we need the option to have longer than 12 weeks with our infants. At three months, a newborn still needs constant care, and the best person to provide this is the parent. Although some women are ready to return to work at this point, many want the option of extra time.
Paid leave for both parents
Family leave shouldn’t just be for women, but men as well. Breastfeeding mothers need support. The father should have the time and financial means to provide comfort to his partner and to bond with his baby. New research also shows that balancing out paid leave between the mother and father helps balance domestic duties, increases relationship happiness, and in the long-term helps decrease the wage gap for women.
Breastfeeding is extremely important for the mother, child, and society. Having the option to stay home with your baby for 12 weeks or more increases breastfeeding success. Nursing is already challenging enough without the pressures of work and family to manage because you’re unable to afford to take the time needed to be successful.
We can take action by encouraging our political leaders, on both the national and local level, to enact better laws. If we are able, we can try to create change at our workplace or seek positions with companies that already have family-friendly cultures.
Did you have a hard time breastfeeding when you returned to work? We would love to hear about it, in the comments below.
About the Author:
Amber is a freelance writer, instructor, and traveler. Her work has been featured in Parent.co, TheWrite Life, WOW! and more. She co-founded Pen and Parent with her college best friend to help people become better writers/parents. When she’s not writing or parenting, hopefully, she’s resting. She can be found at PenandParent.com.
Additional Resources and Reading
I Quit My Corporate Job for Flexibility: 3 Tips for You
Five Things for a Working Mom to Consider Before Making a Career Change
How to Stop the Working Moms Struggle Between Work and Life
The Problem with Maternity Leave in the United States
Maternity Leave and Working Moms