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 I wanted to share with our readers two encouraging recent pieces of news from the US that demonstrates a commitment towards building more friendly workplaces for mothers. The first is that through “Obamacare” (within the Affordable Care Act) there is a provision requiring insurance companies to cover breast pumps and visits to lactation consultants at no cost to the patient.  The second  (and peculiar) news is the opening of a lactation room at the White House, because it is an employer with more than 50 workers.

According to the CDC, lactation rooms have become popular in the US because “mothers are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. labor force“.  Approximately 70% of employed mothers with children younger than 3 years work full time. One-third of these mothers return to work within 3 months after giving birth and two-thirds return within 6 months. Moreover, the CDC reports that “working outside the home is related to a shorter duration of breastfeeding, and intentions to work full-time are significantly associated with lower rates of breastfeeding initiation and shorter duration”

Recent research shows that if 90 percent of US mothers breastfed exclusively for 6 months, around 1,000 infant deaths could be prevented every year. The United States would also save $13 billion per year as medical care costs are lower for fully breastfed infants than never-breastfed infants.

In the medium term, breastfeeding contributes to a more productive workforce since mothers of children who were breastfed are likely to miss fewer days of work to care for sick infants. Today, I want to talk precisely about the potential of breastfeeding-friendly work environments to boost both productivity of the mother and the health and nutrition of the child. The evidence-based knowledge about the benefits of breastfeeding for the work productivity and health of mothers is well-recognized and indisputable. Breastfeeding is an essential part of the overall reproductive cycle, producing a faster recovery from pregnancy. It helps shrink the uterus back to the size it was before pregnancy and it helps to lose weight because of the extra calories the body needs to support breastfeeding. It lowers the risk of postpartum depression, and breast and ovarian cancer, as well as helping prevent osteoporosis later in life. A healthy, stress-free mother who can be on task means an employee who is absent less often and able to contribute more productively to her workplace. Breastfeeding will also decrease employee absences associated with caring for a sick child since it has important short- and long-term health benefits for children. Breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits, prescriptions, and hospitalizations.

One of such work-life balance policies is related to setting a lactation room in the workplace. A lactation room is defined by Wikipedia as “a private room where a breastfeeding woman can use a breast pump in private one or more times a day”. However, some lactation rooms also accommodate for bringing the child to breastfeed during working hours. Lactation rooms at the workplace break a huge barrier and are a clear sign of employers’ efforts to create a more supportive workplace for women. The provision of a fully equipped (i.e. sink available to clean parts, fridge to store milk, a hospital grade pump for women to share, numerous electrical outlets and a comfortable sofa plus small table), private and convenient space to extract milk is certainly a major determinant to employees’ ability to continue breastfeeding and continue supplying this important source of nutrition to their infants upon returning to work.

In the US employed mothers breastfeed at a rate 15 percent lower than that of unemployed mothers. The lack of a secure and appropriate space for extracting, sometimes the traveling, the stress, the deadlines and the lack of time are some of the main reasons.  Even if these rooms are available, other factors might impede breastfeeding in the workplace. Among them, the lack of time for mothers to extract milk during their work day, or the requirement for breastfeeding mothers to engage in travel (see another posting on this soon).

 The legislators who drafted this battled  with  issues of public spending, but there is one consequence they didn’t foresee: a boom in demand for breast pumps that has left some retailers scrambling. In any case, if retailers have to struggle a bit, this is great news for poor mothers not being able to pay the approximately US$ 300 of an electric double pump. Of course, there are manual pumps and hospital grade pumps for hire or for sharing. In the case of sharing hospital grade pumps, the milk collection kits are only $40 each. Whether all poor mothers have health insurance or not is another issue for an even longer post, but Obamacare’s goal is to provide affordable health insurance for all US citizens under his mandate which means that all poor mothers shuld be benefitting from this sooner or later.

Still, combining the required access to lactation rooms with insurance coverage of breast pumps, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research expects still a modest impact. They estimate that the breastfeeding rate will rise from 44.5 to 47.5 percent due to these changes. These progressive policies are encouraging, and our region can learn from them, adapt them and import them quickly. Peru and the Ciudad de Buenos Aires have recently changed legislation to allow for a lactation room, but it seems there is still some room for advancement on this front. I am also sure the unemployed, self employed mothers;   or those mothers employed in the informal sector in our region are also facing hardship finding the time to breastfeed, but unfortunately there are no figures from our regions on these differential breastfeeding rates by occupation.

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