It is all very well telling mothers to breastfeed their babies for at least six months, but asking them to do so while trying to cope with a full time job, looking after the baby and other family and personal commitments is unrealistic and naïve. Experts wrote in the journal Pediatrics that US national breastfeeding rates are still short of the Healthy People 2010's original goals.
The researchers found that 74.2% of women who had at least 13 weeks of complete maternity leave started their babies on breast milk, compared to 64.6% of those whose maternity leave was between 1 to 6 weeks.
The women with longer maternity leave had the highest proportion of babies still being breastfed when they were three months old, the authors added, while those who only had 1 to 6 weeks off work had the lowest proportions. The authors concluded:
"If new mothers delay their time of return to work, then duration of breastfeeding among US mothers may lengthen."
Study author Dr. Chinelo Ogbuanu believes that extending the Family and Medical Leave Act would have beneficial effects on US breasfeeding rates. Ogbuanu works at the Georgia Department of Community Health, Atlanta.
"(if maternity leave were universally available) ..that could help women stay home longer. Some women don't take leave because they don't get paid."Women are entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave after giving birth, according to the US Family Leave and Medical Act. However, a huge number of mothers are affected by businesses that are exempt from this legislation. Any business with fewer than 50 employees only has to offer this benefit to females who worked 1,250 hours or more over the last twelve months. California, New York, Rhode Island and New Jersey are the only US states that offer more than the federal law does.
Compare this to Sweden, where a mother gets 16 months maternity leave at 80% pay. Japan offers 14 weeks at 66% pay, while Canadian law insists on 17 weeks at 55% of the worker's salary. American law does not require the employer to pay anything.
Breastfeeding can either be straightforward or tricky. Not every baby naturally knows how to breastfeed. Women who have to go back to work early, even if they started their baby's off on breast milk, are much more likely to combo feed or switch over to bottle feeding.
Ogbuanu and team gathered data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort, which included a nationally representative sample of 6,150 mothers who had given birth to one child. They had all been in employment for a full year before giving birth.
Breastfeeding offers several benefits for the child, including:
- A stronger immune system, resulting in fewer infections
- A lower risk of sudden infant death syndrome
- Better cognitive development
- A smaller chance of developing diabetes later on in life
- Less risk of becoming obese as a child
- Protection from allergic diseases
- A lower rate of necrotizing enterocolitis among premature babies
- One study indicated that breastfed baby girls had a lower risk of developing breast cancer later on in life
- Breastfeeding releases hormones which enhance her maternal behavior, leading to stronger bonding between mother and child
- Weight loss - breastfeeding uses up fat that was accumulated during pregnancy.
- Infertility - breastfeeding suppresses ovulation, making it less likely that the mother gets pregnant straight away again.
- Lower risk of endometrial, ovarian and breast cancers
- A breastfeeding diabetic mother needs less insulin
- Lower risk of metabolic syndrome
Chinelo Ogbuanu, MD, MPH, PhD, Saundra Glover, PhD, MBA, Janice Probst, PhD, Jihong Liu, ScD, and James Hussey, PhD
Pediatrics. Published online May 29, 2011. doi: 10.1542/peds.2010-0459
Written by Christian Nordqvist