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Health-reform law will help working women breast-feed their babies

The new law requires employers to provide nursing breaks and a private sanitary place to express and store milk to all female employees with babies under one year of age.

If you’ve ever spoken to working mothers who are trying to provide pumped breast milk to their infants, you know what a struggle it can be. I’ve met young women who’ve had to pump their breast milk in bathroom stalls and custodial closets.

And those are the lucky women — the ones whose employers allow them to take breaks to express and store their breast milk. (The mothers then give the milk to their day-care providers for use the following day.)

That struggle will soon become easier for many more women, thanks to a provision in the Affordable Health Care Act of 2010. An analysis published last Friday by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research has determined that the law will encourage each year at least 165,000 more American working women — particularly those in low-paying jobs — to extend the months their babies are breast-fed.

The new law requires employers to provide nursing breaks and a private sanitary place to express and store milk to female employees with babies under one year of age. Employers must also provide a “reasonable” amount of time for the mother to express breast milk for her nursing child.

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The law applies only to hourly workers (those covered by the rules in the Fair Labor Standards Act), but salaried workers are also likely to benefit, the report notes. Companies with less than 50 employees are exempt, but the report suggests that as the practice of permitting women to pump breast milk in the workplace expands, smaller companies may also embrace it. (Some, of course, already do.)

Why breast may be best
Research suggests that breast milk offers many benefits to both infants and mothers. Breast-fed babies are less likely to develop infections, diarrhea and bacterial meningitis, and may also be at reduced risk of developing asthma, diabetes, obesity, childhood leukemia and sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). They may also have healthier lives later in life.

There may be cognitive benefits as well. An Australian study published this week in the journal Pediatrics found that male babies who were predominantly breast-fed for six months or longer scored significantly higher on standardized reading, math and spelling tests at age 10 than boys who were breast-fed for shorter periods. The findings held even after the study’s authors adjusted for socioeconomic status, living environment and the mother’s verbal abilities. (Babies who are talked to a lot also appear to develop greater cognitive skills.)

The AAP also reports that breast-feeding helps new moms recover from childbirth more quickly and may lower their risk of developing breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

A couple important caveats: The studies backing such findings are observational, which means they can show only an association between two things, not a definite cause and effect. And the findings reflect relative, not absolute, risks. In other words, non-breast-fed babies also grow up to be healthy and smart.

It may be, however, that breast-feeding provides some babies with an advantage.

Far behind others
For that reason, we as a country should be making it as easy as possible for women to breast-feed during their baby’s first year. And right now, we’re not doing that. As this report points out, although 77 percent of American infants are breast-fed at birth, only 43.5 percent are continuing to be at least partially breast-fed at six months and only 23 percent at one year. Furthermore, only a third of mothers who nurse for six months do so without any formula supplementation.

Nor is that 77 percentage rate something to brag about. Not all women can breast-feed, but we have one of the lowest at-birth breast-feeding rates in the Western world. In Norway, Brazil, Singapore, Switzerland and Canada, for example, at least 90 percent of newborns are breast-fed. (It’s 99 percent in Norway.)

Why the difference? Employment is a key reason, according to this report. Other developed countries have paid maternity leave for all new mothers. We don’t have that here in the States, and a rapid return to employment is strongly associated with women not nursing.

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This new health law will give more women — again, particularly those in low-paying jobs — the option of breast-feeding longer. And no longer will they have to do so in an unsanitary bathroom stall or closet.

You can read the full report on the law here [PDF].