Extending Maternity Leave May Also Extend Length of Breastfeeding

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Many company’s health benefit plans offer women six weeks of paid maternity leave after giving birth to a child. Under the US Family Leave and Medical Act (FMLA), all women working for non-exempted companies are entitled to 12 weeks unpaid leave. Some lucky mothers have the ability to take the full three months off from work to stay home with their newborn, but even these women are not as likely to fully comply with the recommendation by pediatric experts to exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of a child’s life. A new study finds that the best way to improve breastfeeding rates in the United States would be to extend maternity leave.

Longer Maternity Leave Increases Initiation and Duration of Breastfeeding

Chinelo Ogbuanu MD MPH PhD, a senior maternal and child health epidemiologist at the Georgia Department of Community Health, analyzed data from 6,150 women who gave birth to a single child, worked in the 12 months before delivery, and responded to the nine-month interview in the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. (Note: Ogbuanu conducted the research as a doctoral student at the University of South Carolina.) The researchers controlled for factors such as ethnicity, race, and age which are also known to affect breastfeeding rates.

Overall, just over 69% of women initiated breastfeeding after birth, but only 37% continuing to do so for more than 6 months. A longer duration of total or paid maternity leave was associated with a significantly higher rate of breastfeeding initiation and continuation of predominant nursing for at least three months.

Read: 2010 CDC Breastfeeding Report Shows Improvement

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Women who returned to work after at least 13 weeks postpartum were 74% more likely to initiate breastfeeding and 99% more likely to predominantly breastfeed for at least a minimum of three months compared with those who went back to work within one to six weeks. They were 21% more likely to at least participate in breastfeeding part-time for more than three months, with the addition of supplemental formula.

Since a longer maternity leave often leads to a delayed return to work, impacting breastfeeding initiation and duration, Dr. Ogbuanu recommends the United States make maternity leave universally available to “enable women to take sufficient time off work after delivery to properly nurture their infants.” He notes that Sweden offers mothers 16 months of maternity leave at 80% pay and Japan offers 14 weeks at 66% pay.

Read: Breastfeeding Supplies Now Tax Deductible Medical Expenses

For employers unable to give longer lengths of time away from work, making the workplace more “breastfeeding-friendly” could also help to encourage longer breastfeeding duration.

In January, Surgeon General Regina Benjamin released “A Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding” and outlined steps that can be taken to remove obstacles to breastfeeding, including those within the workplace. Companies can ultimately save money through the offering of childcare or private nursing/pumping areas, as the continuation of breastfeeding for at least six months could potentially save the US $13 billion annually due to reduced medical and other costs such as absenteeism.

Source reference:
Ogbuanu C, et al "The effect of maternity leave length and time of return to work on breastfeeding" Pediatrics 2011; 127: e1414–e1427.

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