Researchers at Cambridge Health Alliance have a novel plan to save billions of dollars a year in health care costs: just increase the number of women who breastfeed. If 90 percent of new moms in America breastfed for six months, say researchers in this month's edition of the journal Pediatrics, over $13 billion would be saved each year in combined health care costs, including fewer infections and fewer doctors visits, and indirect expenses, like missed work.
Of course, I have no desire to armchair-quarterback (or would it be armchair-mother?) how parents feed their children -- whether by breast or bottle. But, for women who do want to breastfeed, $13 billion -- while an impressive figure -- is not going to be among the numbers they're crunching. Instead, they're going to be looking at the hits their incomes will take if they breastfeed -- hits in the form of unpaid leave they may have to take to breastfeed, or unpaid breaks to pump breast milk on the job.
"Three-fourths of all women start out breastfeeding, but that number drops off a lot later, because they aren't getting support," Dr. Melissa Bartick an instructor at Harvard Medical and lead researcher for the study told Politics Daily. "There are lots of things that actively undermine them -- mothers not having uninterrupted contact with infants in the hospital, poor access to lactation consultation, a lack of on-site daycare, aggressive marketing of formulas."
By three months, less than one-third of women are breastfeeding. "The bottom line is that this is bigger than just depending on individual mothers or families," added Bartick.
Included in the new health care reform bill is a provision aimed at breastfeeding
mothers, requiring that employers let nursing mothers take short breaks to pump breast milk. But, those breaks are unpaid and only employers with more than 50 employees are included.
In the long run, the more important measure may to be get more flexible work arrangements, especially regarding parental leave, for both women and men. Currently, women are legally allowed just 12 weeks of maternity leave -- unpaid. In comparison, the European Union recently upped its recommended maternity leave to 20 weeks -- paid this time -- and included a provision recommending two weeks for paternity leave as well.
Of course, it's not just the money -- researchers also say that the improvements in health care would prevent an estimated 900-plus infant deaths a year, from conditions like Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and pneumonia. But, the money is a huge part of whether women who want to breastfeed are able to.
The fact is that mothers who work and breastfeed stand to lose out on income, whether through unpaid breaks to pump breast milk or lost work during maternity leave. Making a couple adjustments to the way we work would open more options for parents in feeding their infants. Besides, with $13 billion in savings on the table, it just might pay for itself.