Employers are key to overcoming U.S. breastfeeding dilemma

The United States government has launched a year-long national awareness campaign consisting of public service announcements (PSAs) for print media, radio and television, all to help the American public better understand the significant health benefits that breastfeeding provides to mothers and babies.

LifeCare, Inc. CEO, Peter G. Burki, strongly supports this endeavor and is calling upon the nation's employers to step up their own breastfeeding awareness efforts to help accomplish the campaign's objectives.

“This campaign is creating the perfect opportunity for corporate America to make two important contributions,” Burki states. “The first toward improving the health of our country's mothers and infants and the second toward enhancing the health and profitability of their own organizations. Study after study has demonstrated the health and businesses benefits of supporting breastfeeding in the workplace. So getting behind the momentum of this new campaign should be a no-brainer for the business community.”

Studies by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the UCLA Center for Healthier Children, Families and Communities have shown that infants who are breastfed are more likely to have stronger immune systems initially than bottle-fed babies. Infants who are not breastfeed exclusively for the first six months may be more prone to developing asthma, allergies, obesity, ear infections and other illnesses in childhood. Two more studies published recently—one in the May issue of Pediatrics and a second one in Diabetes/Metabolism Research and Reviews—suggest a decreased risk of death among breastfed infants and protection against Type 1 diabetes, respectively.

For businesses, Burki says, the benefits of workplace breastfeeding support are equally clear. They include significantly reduced absenteeism among working mothers, lower health care expenses for breastfeeding mothers and their children, and a speedier return to work following maternity leave.

The Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and the Ad Council, which are jointly spearheading the new government campaign, are also calling for the cooperation of the nation's employers because of the strong influence they can have on working mothers' decisions regarding breastfeeding.

The new PSAs feature pregnant women in a variety of surprising scenarios. In one, an expecting mother is riding a mechanical bull in a bar; in another, she is competing in a floating log competition. The ads ask: “You wouldn't take risks before your baby's born. Why start after?” All of the PSAs carry the tagline: “Babies were born to be breastfed. Breastfeed exclusively for six months.”

Carol Ann Friedman, RN, IBCLC, director of LifeCare's Mothers at Work® program—one of the most comprehensive breastfeeding support models available—has counseled thousands of employees and employers on breastfeeding issues and calls the PSAs “extremely compelling.” Friedman says that she doesn't mind their edgy quality, especially in light of the fact that the U.S. has one of the lowest rates of breastfeeding in the developed world.

“Breastfeeding in this country is considered by many to be a national health dilemma,” says Friedman. “In fact, the DHHS has committed itself to increasing the proportion of American mothers who are breastfeeding at six months from the current level of 33 percent to 50 percent by 2010. Since the majority of these mothers are also part of our national labor force, employers can play a critical role in achieving this goal.”

Burki points out that many employers have already begun to lend their support to this effort by offering their working mothers private rooms where they can express their milk during the work day. A growing number of employers also are offering a full suite of workplace breastfeeding support services, such as those built into LifeCare's Mothers at Work program, which provides women with 24/7 access to certified lactation consultants, comprehensive educational materials, access to quality breastfeeding pumps and equipment, and instructional classes.

Corporate support for workplace breastfeeding also has been building due to legislative efforts. Sixteen states have now passed or are reviewing legislation requiring employers to allow nursing women to express milk during break times and to make reasonable efforts to provide a room (other than a restroom) where women can do so. Still, only 16 percent of U.S. employers provide lactation rooms, according to a 2001 survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Clearly, there's a lot of room for increased support and greater awareness,” Burki states. “We should remember that returning to work is often cited by new mothers as one of their greatest obstacles to continuing to breastfeed. As a result, a significant number of them experience anxiety, reduce their work hours or leave their jobs altogether. And that's simply not good for employers. So, when it comes right down to it, supporting working mothers isn't just nice-to-do. It's a business imperative.”



The opinions expressed here are the views of the writer and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of News Medical.
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