August is National Breastfeeding Month in the U.S. and for 40 years Medela has been a dedicated advocate for breastfeeding women and families in this country, focused on helping new parents successfully feed their babies breast milk for as long as they choose.
According to the CDC, most babies begin receiving breast milk when they are born, but only 1 in 4 infants is exclusively breastfed by the time they are 6 months old (the AAP recommendation). There are quantifiable consequences to these statistics — low rates of breastfeeding add more than $3 billion a year to medical costs for mothers and children in the United States. On top of higher medical expenses, the corresponding loss of work as a result of sick time for parents and babies can trickle down to an organizations’ bottom line.
Here are four important considerations that HR professionals may not know about breastfeeding employees.
1. Breastfeeding Provides an Abundance of Health Benefits
Babies who are breastfed exclusively for their first six months of life are less likely to suffer from diarrhea and sickness, gastroenteritis, colds and flu, ear and chest infections, and thrush. Breast milk contains a number of antibodies, anti-viruses, anti-allergens, and anti-parasites, all of which can help in developing a healthy and happy baby. In fact, infants who are breastfed have reduced risk of the following short- and long-term health conditions:
Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) for preterm infants
Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS)
Acute otitis media (ear infections)
Gastrointestinal infections (diarrhea/vomiting)
Severe lower respiratory disease
Type 1 diabetes
In addition to the many health benefits realized by children who are fed breast milk as babies, there are also significant benefits for a mother who breastfeeds. For every extra month a woman is able to breastfeed, her own risk of a number of cancers is reduced, including cancer of the breast, ovaries and uterus.
2. Parents of Breastfed Babies Are More Satisfied and Productive at Work
Employees are more likely to remain with an employer that supports their family choices and priorities. A study conducted among companies that provided lactation support programs for employees found that their retention rate among new parents was 94%, compared to the national average at the time of 59%. And because breastfed infants are ill less often, working parents are likely to spend less time away from work looking after a sick baby. In fact, one study found that parents of babies fed breast milk had 50% fewer one-day absences compared to parents of formula-fed babies.
3. Pumping Breast Milk at Work is NOT Optional
Breastfeeding women who return to work after the birth of a child must pump regularly throughout the day in order to continue to produce breast milk. The need to pump is a physical necessity for these employees. If they do not express their breast milk on a regular schedule they can experience painful swelling which can lead to medical problems and reduced milk supply. If a woman can't pump, engorgement can lead to plugged ducts, mastitis and even abscesses, sometimes requiring hospitalization and intravenous antibiotics.
Employers can help support new parents by ensuring they have a comfortable lactation space available for pumping that complies with federal and local laws. Not only is this the right thing to do, and good for business, but it is also required by law for many employers. Whether employers already have a lactation space, or are creating one for the first time, it’s important they create spaces that are safe, clean and dignified for their employees.
4. New Parents Want Better Support From Their Employer
A January 2020 study revealed that 4 out of 5 employees want better breastfeeding support from their employer. Studies have also shown that although most infants started their lives breastfeeding (84.1%), only 58.3% of infants were still breastfeeding at 6 months and, unfortunately, a mother is more than twice as likely to quit breastfeeding in the month she returns to work compared to moms who are at home. New parents returning to work want an environment that allows them to continue their career and manage new parental responsibilities.
For organizations that want to better support breastfeeding employees, here are some key recommendations.
First, write and publicize policies that specifically address the company’s position and related processes that govern the rights and treatment of breastfeeding employees. Specifically, this means maintaining a current Lactation Policy that describes where and how employees can express breast milk during the workday. We recommend incorporating the Lactation Policy document into standard communication resources for new parent employees.
Third, ensure you provide a clean, dignified and accessible space for lactating employees to pump – preferably one that is exclusively dedicated to the purpose of pumping breast milk. And if you already have a space, be sure that it has been adapted where appropriate for parents returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Many employers-of-choice are realizing that providing breastfeeding support and resources to working parents is a necessity, and we are proud to continue helping organizations accomplish this with best-in-class breastfeeding benefits and programs. If you need help evaluating your organization when it comes to developing family-friendly benefits and services, please contact us today.
Ladomenou F et al. Protective effect of exclusive breastfeeding against infections during infancy: a prospective study. Arch Dis Child. 2010; 95(12):1004-1008.
Li DP et al. Breastfeeding and ovarian cancer risk: a systematic review and meta-analysis of 40 epidemiological studies. Asian Pac J Cancer Prev. 2014;15(12):4829-4837.) (Jordan SJ et al. Breastfeeding and endometrial cancer risk: an analysis from the Epidemiology of Endometrial Cancer Consortium. ObstetGynecol. 2017;129(6):1059-1067.
(Victora CG et al. Breastfeeding in the 21st century: epidemiology, mechanisms, and lifelong effect. Lancet. 2016;387(10017):475-490.)
Comparison of maternal absenteeism and infant illness rates among breast-feeding and formula-feeding women in two corporations." American Journal of Health Promotion 10.2 (1995): 148-153.)
New Moms’ Healthy Returns, 2020
NIH. American Journal of Public Health, Working Mothers, Breastfeeding and the Law, (Feb 2011)