Monday, April 5, 2010

From My Soapbox

Disclaimer: this post is a rant, it is preachy and it is about breast-feeding. If a lecture that involves boobies is not on your list of must-reads today, you won't hurt my feelings if you move along.

I saw this article today in my daily Washington Post email and had to post because it got me so fired up: Study: Breast-feeding would save lives, money. It is about the 10th press release or article or whatever you want to call it that I've read in the past year on the same topic. Ugh.

These studies all say the same thing: Breast-feeding is proven beneficial but fewer US women breast-feed then women in other countries. If a US woman does breast feed it is, on average, for fewer months than women in other countries. Therefore, U.S. children do not reap all of the benefits of breast-feeding, suffer more illnesses, etc.

I agree with that in general - but what burns me up about these studies and their press releases it that they never really point out the actual problem. Typically, the differences are chalked up to be 'cultural' - that we are so job-focused and money-driven in the U.S. that women prioritize work over breast-feeding their babies. Yeah. Wrong. Super Wrong. Insert a giant eye-roll wrong.

After having a baby and returning to work myself, the causes of the disparity between breast-feeding rates in the U.S. and other countries seem so obvious to me that I can't believe they are so rarely pointed out.

Here's the problem: maternity leave in the U.S. Or really, the lack thereof. After my experiences, I feel like the pathetic excuse for maternity leave we have in this country is a huge driver of women not breast-feeding their children for longer periods of time here.

In the U.S. we are guaranteed by law a measly 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a baby. Apart from Australia, we are the only industrialized nation that offers no paid maternity leave at all. And even this 'benefit' is relatively recent - FMLA was just passed in 1993. What did women do before that?? Lose their jobs?

Twelve weeks is barely enough time to get yourself together after having a baby and get on an established feeding schedule. Many women can't even afford to take that much unpaid time off and head back to work as soon as they possibly can. There are, after all, bills to be paid. How they pull that off, I'm not sure. It can not be easy.

In comparison, our Canadian neighbors get 14 months of paid leave. In the UK, mothers get 16 months of leave, most of which is paid. Most European countries offer some combination of paid, partially paid and unpaid leave between 6 months and a year. Even though the Australians don't get paid leave, they are able to take up to a year of unpaid leave - 9 more months then we get in the U.S.

Shockingly (she says mockingly) women in these countries tend to breast-feed their children for longer periods of time. What a head scratcher!

My point here is simple: if mothers in the U.S. didn't have to rush back to work so soon, they'd breast-feed longer. Where is that study?

Breast-feeding while working full time is extremely challenging. Returning to work is the beginning of the end of nursing for most mothers, for a variety of reasons. A small number of many possible examples:
  • There may or may not be somewhere comfortable to pump during the day.
  • Pumping doesn't work for all mothers.
  • The stress of being at work has a negative impact on milk supply.
  • The baby is now receiving bottles during the day, which they may begin to prefer or just be more used to.
  • Trying to squeeze in feedings while rushing to get out the door in the morning or after a long day at work can be next to impossible. Throw in a nursing strike, teething or an illness and boom - you're late for work.
I consider it a downward nursing spiral after returning to work: a set of circumstances that ultimately leads to failure and the end of breast-feeding for a mom and baby.

It is most certainly not 'cultural'. I don't care how much you love working and love your job - leaving your baby for the first time to return to work is one of the hardest things you will ever do.

In my opinion, women who give birth in the U.S. are at such a striking disadvantage from then their international counterparts that until those differences are mitigated, there will be no real improvements in this arena. Until then I suppose we can just keep bashing all the poor mothers who have to cope with these circumstances over the head with implicit blame.

There. I feel so much better getting that off my chest. No pun intended - ha! I can now get to work on all the Easter pics and post now.


Lindsay said...

Great post, Kara. I totally agree.

Tracy said...

Amen to that!

Soña said...

True true true! Sing it loud sister -- now that I've managed to train the partners to not BANG on my door while I'm pumping I'm dealing with repetitive plugged ducts because meetings/hearings/work keep interrupting my pump times. We need to force this to forefront of this discussion.

Heidi O said...

It really does tell a big portion of the story of why it is hard to breast feed for even a year here. It is still an uphill battle here to continue putting kids nutrition first.