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Michelle Obama to Promote Breastfeeding as IRS Gives Tax Breaks for Nursing

4 years ago
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First lady Michelle Obama will be speaking out to remove barriers to breastfeeding, Politics Daily has learned, throwing the spotlight on nursing as a way to reduce childhood obesity.

This comes as the Obama administration in the past year has made several moves to encourage breastfeeding -- including a push for more flexible workplace rules and an Internal Revenue Service ruling on Thursday that breast pumps and other nursing supplies qualify for tax breaks.

Mrs. Obama -- who has spoken in public about nursing her youngest daughter, Sasha -- is going to tread carefully in what might be a sensitive area for some women -- and not use her bully pulpit to directly ask more women to breast feed.

"Breastfeeding is a very personal choice for every woman," Kristina Schake, Mrs. Obama's communications chief, told Politics Daily. "We are trying to make it easier for those who choose to do it."

Last week, Mrs. Obama touched on breastfeeding strategy at a lunch with 10 print reporters who cover her to mark the first anniversary of her "Let's Move" anti-childhood obesity campaign.

Looking ahead to what she will do in the second year of "Let's Move," Mrs. Obama said: "We also want to focus on the important touch points in a child's life. And what we're learning now is that early intervention is key. Breastfeeding. Kids who are breastfed longer have a lower tendency to be obese.

"We want to get into child-care centers, day-care centers, and start talking about how -- what kind of snacks they're getting there. We want to have those conversations at an earlier level. But those are just some of the things that you'll see."

Breastfeeding rates are low among African-American mothers compared to other racial and ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Mrs. Obama took note of this when she addressed the Congressional Black Caucus Conference on Sept. 10.

"And because it's important to prevent obesity early, we're also working to promote breastfeeding, especially in the black community -- where 40 percent of our babies never get breastfed at all, even in the first weeks of life, and we know that babies that are breastfed are less likely to be obese as children," she said.

Robin Schepper, executive director of "Let's Move," told Politics Daily, Mrs. Obama wants to increase breastfeeding rates but "is not telling women to breastfeed ... but wants to make it easier for moms by encouraging hospitals to change practices so after a baby is born, the baby is in the room with them."

Toward that goal, Mrs. Obama is going to push more hospitals to be certified as "Baby Friendly" by Baby Friendly USA, a non-governmental organization that works with the United Nations Children's Fund, or UNICEF, to increase breastfeeding opportunities. Only 3 percent of births occur at U.S. hospitals with the "Baby Friendly" designation."

In a "Let's Move" policy report issued last May, one of the problems mothers may have with breastfeeding starts in the hospital where after birth, "many babies are unnecessarily given formula and separated from their mothers, making it harder to start and practice breastfeeding."

Meanwhile, the Internal Revenue Service announced Thursday that the costs for "breast pumps and supplies that assist lactation are medical care" are now, under the IRS code eligible for tax breaks. That means that breastfeeding supplies could be treated as deductible medical expenses and/or be reimbursed under flexible spending plans.

In the child nutrition bill President Obama signed Dec. 13, the WIC program for low-income women -- the nickname for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children -- provides more breastfeeding counseling and supplies to eligible mothers.

The Affordable Care Act signed by Obama on March 13 -- the health care overhaul Republicans are trying to repeal -- requires certain employers to give nursing mothers break time and a place -- not a bathroom -- to express milk. The Labor Department is in charge of enforcement; the law covers a baby's first year.

Obama also ordered federal agencies to provide time and private space for nursing mothers and is encouraging bosses to give the same treatment to professional women who may not be covered by Labor Department rules.

White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett -- and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls -- noted in a post at www.whitehouse.gov last December that workplace rules have a major impact on a woman's decision whether to nurse.

"While 75 percent of women initially breastfeed their baby, after six months only 43 percent are still breastfeeding at all," Jarrett wrote. "One of the most common reasons mothers cite for discontinuing breastfeeding is returning to work and not having break time or a private space to express milk. Many studies have shown these types of worksite supports help women continue to breastfeed after returning to work."

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