With the known benefits of breastfeeding for the infant, mother, and employer, it is discouraging that most mothers who initiate breastfeeding quit before their infants’ first birthday. Among children born in 2008, only 44% were breastfed at 6 months and 24% at 12 months, even though 75% were breastfed after birth. Work-related issues can be a major reason why women fail to start breastfeeding after the birth of their child, or stop breastfeeding before the child has received the full benefits. With more than 50% of mothers of infants participating in the work force, we need to find ways to balance employment and breastfeeding.
Our recent study found that women who were working full-time (≥35hrs/week) were less likely to initiate breastfeeding or to continue breastfeeding beyond 6 months, compared to women who were not working. The breastfeeding experience of women who worked part time was similar to that of women who were not working. We also found that mothers in professional occupations (architecture, engineering, legal, health care practitioner, etc) were more likely to initiate breastfeeding when compared to women in administrative occupations or other occupations (namely farming, fishing, and forestry; construction and extraction; installation, maintenance, and repair; production; transportation and material moving; and military-specific occupations), even after taking into account several factors known to be associated with breastfeeding, including the amount of maternity leave time taken.
The findings from our study, and others, suggest that part-time work offers an effective strategy for successfully combining breastfeeding and employment. There has been some success with corporate lactation support programs in helping working women breastfeed longer. However, pumping alone at work may be inadequate to maintain milk flow because direct breastfeeding stimulates the breasts more effectively than do the best electric or manual pumps. Among women who breastfed and worked, women who directly breastfed their infant during the workday persisted in breastfeeding longer than other breastfeeding women who returned to work.
We recommend that employers, in addition to providing comprehensive, high-quality lactation support programs, explore strategies that allow lactating mothers have direct access to their babies. Such strategies, as promoted in the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, include having the mother keep the baby with her while she works, allowing the mother to go to the baby to breastfeed during the workday, telecommuting, offering flexible work schedules, maintaining part-time work schedules, and using on-site or nearby child care centers. Because no single strategy will fit all employment settings, creativity is needed, especially for mothers who are not working in professional occupations. A woman’s decision to breastfeed, though personal, requires action from multiple players, if she is to succeed. Let’s act NOW!
Chinelo Ogbuanu, MD, MPH, PhD
Senior Maternal and Child Health Epidemiologist
Maternal and Child Health Program
Georgia Department of Public Health
More information about our work is available in:
J Hum Lact, August 2011; vol. 27, 3: pp. 225-238.