by Erin O'Reilly, RN, MSNR, IBCLC, La Leche League Leader
President, St. Louis Breastfeeding Coalition
Breastfeeding mothers in America don’t get credit for their work breastfeeding their children. We Americans subsidize cows for cow milk, health care for our children, and teachers for public school education - breastfeeding is all three of those for our babies but most American mothers do not get paid maternity leave to subsidize this basic act of feeding, protection, and nurturance. Less than 1/4 of American mothers get any paid maternity leave to recuperate from birth and bond with their children, let alone breastfeed, and it usually is much less time than mothers in other countries receive.
I remember when I became a stay-at-home mother and gave up my paid job to be with my son and continue breastfeeding him. I felt like I just “fell off the roster,” so to speak, and was in no way recognized for my civic duty of raising a future American. I was especially bothered that I didn’t even get social security credit during my time away from paid work to mother, yet I felt like I was working more than a full-time job breastfeeding and mothering my son. Breastfeeding a young baby alone takes more than 8 hours a day as they usually breastfeed around 10-12 times a day and each feed in the early weeks takes an average of 45 minutes, and that does not include all the other ways one cares for a young baby.
I did appreciate the tax deduction I received for having a child but that was a family deduction and did not in any way compensate me for the time and effort and expenses associated with breastfeeding. Of course, I was very motivated to breastfeed my son because I loved him and I wanted him to have the best start to life, but I am not the only one who gains from a healthy child. A child is a most important resource for our society and country so why shouldn’t we mothers be subsidized through paid maternity leave like in most other countries?
In most other countries - large and small, wealthy and poor - mothers have universal paid maternity leave, sometimes for many, many months, and their jobs are held for them when they do return to work. America is the richest country so why can’t we start small with at least 6 weeks of universal paid maternity leave, and build from there as our economy accommodates?
The health/medical care savings from increased breastfeeding rates would probably pay for maternity leave. Take the example of breastfeeding and diabetes risk reduction of around 40% for the baby and around 10% for the mom if breastfeeding continues, which is a 50% reduction in the yearly cost of $245 billion for diabetes alone. And breastfeeding reduces so many other illnesses for both baby and mom, so it would probably pay for the costs of a certain amount of maternity leave in America.
If it is felt that we can’t afford paid maternity leave for all babies, we could at least pay for two children per family, or replacement population. That would gently encourage family sizes that would support sustainable population growth for our country and world.
Paid maternity leave would allow American mothers to be given the break they need to stay home a bit longer with our young babies, our unemployment rate would go down, there would be more people around to mind the homes and communities, breastfeeding continuation rates would go up, and our mothers would feel appreciated and recognized as contributing members of the American economy.