August is National Breastfeeding Month. Breast milk’s benefits – from stronger immune systems for babies to shorter recovery times for moms – convince a significant number of new mothers to breastfeed.
But returning to work, often only six weeks after giving birth, is a major factor in derailing those moms’ breastfeeding plans. The good news is that women and their employers can take some simple steps to support successful breastfeeding and, ultimately, healthier babies.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, more than 57 percent of mothers with infants work full or part time. Many of them are also breastfeeding. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that 70 percent of Georgia mothers start out breastfeeding their babies. But by 3 months, only 27 percent of babies are exclusively breastfeeding; that number falls to 14 percent by 6 months.
“Returning to work” is a top reason that women give for decreasing the amount of time they are able to breastfeed their babies. Most had planned to nurse for six months to a year. So how can more women reach their breastfeeding goals?
First, in order to have a robust milk supply that can last, it must be well established early on. It should start during the first 60 minutes after birth – the “magical hour” – when medically stable infants need uninterrupted skin-to-skin time with their mothers. This helps mother and baby bond and initiate breastfeeding.
For the first two weeks, the mother’s future milk supply is being “ordered” by the baby. Nursing on demand, not on a schedule, helps her body produce what her baby needs. Family and friends can help by providing meals or doing household tasks so that the new mother can focus on feeding.
A few weeks before returning to work, mothers may begin expressing some extra milk every day and freezing it. Milk stored in containers designed for breast milk can be frozen for at least three months in a refrigerator freezer, and twice that long in a deep freeze.
Breast pumps range from manual pumps, which work best for moms who only need to pump once or twice a day, to quality double electric pumps, which make it easier for moms who work longer shifts and need to pump three to four times per day.
The Affordable Care Act requires most insurance companies to provide some type of breast pump.
Employers play an important role in ensuring breastfeeding success for their employees who are nursing. The Affordable Care Act regulations require employers to provide “reasonable break time” for an employee to express breast milk, as well as a private location (other than a bathroom) for milk expression.
Employers are not required to pay for pumping time, so mothers may need to use established break times to pump.
Studies have found that businesses that support the breastfeeding mother’s efforts experience less absenteeism due to infant illnesses and have happier employees who feel valued.
Finally, all nursing mothers need support, whether at home or work. For a list of resources, visit memorialhealth.com or call Memorial Health’s 24-hour Warmline at 912-350-8164.
Wendy Nichols, R.N., IBCLC is a board certified lactation consultant at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.