The Good, the Bad and the Hope for Breastfeeding Rights

| Aug 22, 2011

Roughly four million women give birth in the United States every year – and most choose to breastfeed (74 percent). After all, the nutritional value of breast milk is well documented. Numerous studies show that breastfeeding protects mothers and children from a range of acute and chronic health conditions. But with two-thirds of today’s working women returning to work within three months of giving birth, the lack of supportive workplace policies and laws is forcing too many nursing mothers to quit breastfeeding early – or never start.

The good news is that several recent measures provide support for many working mothers who choose to breastfeed, and more improvements could be on the way. The bad news is that not enough working women and employers know about them. Here are the most recent developments:

  • On the federal level, a little-known provision in the new health reform law can do a tremendous amount to eliminate barriers to breastfeeding for many working mothers. Under the law, millions of women who are paid on an hourly basis and protected by basic provisions of the Fair Labor Standards Act – those who work in industries like retail, food service and factories where private space is scarce and time is closely monitored – are guaranteed a safe, private place and reasonable break time to pump at work. The law is expected to increase the number of new mothers who breastfeed by 165,000 every year as long as women know about this new right.
  • In late January, the Surgeon General issued a Call to Action on breastfeeding that raised awareness about the important health, emotional, economic and environmental effects of breastfeeding. It included concrete steps and strategies that health care providers, employers, insurers, policymakers, researchers and the public can take to help eliminate the barriers that keep mothers from breastfeeding – including barriers in the workplace. It also includes a call for employers to adopt paid leave policies, which are another critical support for working mothers. The Call to Action is a blueprint for the reforms we need and it should be heeded.
  • And just last month, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) recommended that breastfeeding support and equipment be covered by insurance plans under the preventive care provisions of health care reform at no cost to consumers. The Obama administration accepted the recommendation, so a year from now we expect significantly more mothers to have access to breastfeeding equipment.

Despite this recent and promising progress, the work to help all mothers who want to breastfeed do so is not yet done.

Right now, the Department of Labor is figuring out how best to implement the reasonable break time provision in health reform so that nursing mothers who don’t work in an office or at a fixed location – such as bus drivers, mail carriers, law enforcement officers and emergency medical technicians – can find private places to pump at work. The National Partnership for Women & Families is collecting comments, ideas and best practices from workers, organizations and researchers with experience or expertise in this kind of policy. You can help by sharing your insights here.

Recognizing that the health reform provision only covers hourly, non-exempt working women, the Obama administration directed all federal agencies to extend the right to all nursing mothers. We would like to see employers in the private sector follow suit. Just yesterday, Senator Merkley (Ore.) and Representative Maloney (N.Y.) introduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act. The law would be an important step in ensuring private employers offer a time and place to pump to all nursing mothers, while also protecting women from workplace discrimination for breastfeeding, reducing some of the costs, and ensuring equipment is safe and effective.

We applaud the administration and other supportive policymakers for advancing breastfeeding rights. Particularly in the workplace, protections for nursing mothers are an important factor in working women’s economic security and the health of their families.

We have seen a lot of progress recently. Let’s take the next steps to make it possible for every new mother to breastfeed.