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Breastfeeding Is the Best Feeding, but U.S. Mothers Are Too Overworked to Provide It

The problem: Most American mothers don’t meet their breastfeeding goals. The solution: Well, there are many.
(Photo: ameli0rate/Flickr)

(Photo: ameli0rate/Flickr)

If there was a pill that could harness all the benefits breast milk bestows upon a child, it would basically be a miracle drug: Breastfeeding has the power to prevent heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity, multiple sclerosis, respiratory infections, ear infections, SIDS , allergies, and psychological maladies—and that’s just in the child. As for mothers, those who nurse babies are less prone to osteoporosis, obesity, anxiety, and several types of cancer.

The case for breastfeeding is so overwhelming, in fact, that the World Health Organization urges mothers around the world to exclusively breastfeed their babies for the first six months of life.

In the United States, at least, that is proving to be unrealistic. Only 25 percent of American moms are still breastfeeding six-month-old babies, down from 50 percent a decade ago. Even among women who aim to breastfeed for three months, 60 percent don’t make it that far.

Only 25 percent of American moms are still breastfeeding six-month-old babies, down from 50 percent a decade ago.

In response, researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention set out to figure out why mothers are having difficulty meeting their breastfeeding goals. The problem, it turns out, is work. Women who return to their full-time jobs before their infant is three months old are much less likely to be able to keep breastfeeding, the study found.

The CDC researchers looked at data collected via questionnaire from almost 1,200 women who were employed while pregnant and intended to breastfeed for at least three months. Their average age was 29, they were predominantly white and married, and nearly half (48.6 percent) were college-educated.

The majority of them, due to employment commitments and financial obligations, had to switch their babies to formula, solid foods, and water to facilitate childcare as they returned to work before their baby’s six-month birthday (57 percent of U.S. mothers with infants younger than a year old work, most of them more than 35 hours per week).

“The end of the boob,” as other studies have called it, also spells the end of the aforementioned bonanza of health benefits—creating a real burden on the American health care system.

The good news is that there are lots of solutions to this problem. National support for a longer-than-three-months maternity leave might mean that millions more babies could have access to breast milk (we can look to Scandinavia for inspiration). Employers, for their part, can support flexible scheduling or telecommuting so that women achieve their breastfeeding goals. And hospitals and health care providers could be more adamant about training new mothers how to breastfeed—yes, it’s a learned skill—which would allow more mothers to succeed at it.

“Support for a mother’s delayed return to paid employment, or return at part-time hours, may help more mothers achieve their breastfeeding intentions," the authors conclude. "This may increase breastfeeding rates and have important public health implications for U.S. mothers and infants.”

Chelsea Hawkins contributed reporting.