New moms have all heard the advice: “breast is best.” While it’s true that breastfeeding facilitates bonding between mother and child, many new moms know that choosing to breastfeed can come with a host of challenges.
From my own experiences, I understand all too well that making the decision to breastfeed is not always simple. While I was fortunate enough to breastfeed both my daughter, now 6, and my son, now 2, I encountered obstacles that I would not have been able to overcome without a supportive employer that offered four months of paid leave after the birth of my children.
For the first several weeks of her life my daughter was not nursing well. Having paid time away from work after her birth allowed me to pump 10-12 times a day and ensure that she could have breast milk even though she was not nursing. After some time, practice, and growth (on her end), breastfeeding “clicked” and we were able to continue to breastfeed for more than a year.
My experience while breastfeeding my son was also complicated. While I was nursing and pumping milk, my son simply would not take a bottle of breast milk. Therefore, it was critical during that time that I was home with him to nurse. It was not until close to the end of my leave, after I had pumped and frozen a large supply of milk, that I realized my breast milk had excess lipase. Lipase is necessary to break down the fats in breast milk and allow babies to digest it, but too much lipase means this process happens rapidly, which means milk tastes spoiled or sour after a period of time. My son was refusing the bottle because, to him, my milk had a rancid smell and taste.
I was devastated that I could not use any of the milk I had pumped and frozen for use after my leave had ended, but still grateful that I had been at home with him during that time to nurse. Before returning to work, I was also able to learn how to prepare the milk with excess lipase so that my son could still receive breast milk at daycare. The result is that, despite early struggles, I was also able to breastfeed my son for more than a year.
It is not difficult to imagine how my experience could have been different — how the experiences of many mothers are very different from my own.
Nearly 1 in 4 employed moms return to work within two weeks of childbirth. There are also disparities between the experiences of white women and women of color. Only 25 percent of Latino employees and 43 percent of Black employees report having access to any paid or partially paid parental leave, compared to 50 percent of white workers. The result is that moms of color may take shorter periods of leave or no leave at all.
Mothers who return to a paid job less than six weeks after birth are less likely to breastfeed for the recommended duration, meaning they and their babies miss the health and bonding benefits it brings. Studies show that breastfeeding protects mothers and children from a range of acute and chronic health conditions.
All mothers should have the opportunity to breastfeed, if they choose, but the reality is that the United States lacks policies, like a national paid family and medical leave program, that would actually support their choices.
Without a national paid leave policy, our nation is placing an additional barrier in front of mothers who work outside the home and forcing many to choose between giving their baby breast milk and keeping a job. The result is that many moms must quit breastfeeding early — or never start.
This current status quo is shameful — especially for a country that claims to value families. We know that in states with paid leave programs, breastfeeding duration increased among women who take leave, with significant increases in breastfeeding initiation among mothers in lower-wage and lower-benefit jobs.
Women and babies deserve the opportunity to experience the benefits of breastfeeding no matter where they live or work. This will only be possible if we have a national paid family and medical leave policy that covers all employed people and provides a meaningful amount of leave and wage replacement generous enough to make taking leave affordable for everyone.
Implementing a national paid family and medical leave policy is key to creating a culture that supports new moms and empowers them to make the best decisions for themselves and their babies.