A Major Step Forward: Supporting Women, Families, and Breastfeeding

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE - March 23, 2009

Washington, DC—On March 11 President Obama created the White House Council on Women and Girls with the stated purpose “to ensure that American women and girls are treated fairly in all matters of public policy.” During its first year, the Council will focus on formulating comprehensive, coordinated policies in the areas of women’s economic security, work-family balance, violence prevention, and healthy families and improved health care. The United States Breastfeeding Committee applauds the President’s recognition that issues like equal pay, family leave, and child care “are not just women’s issues, but family issues and economic issues,” and looks forward to working with the Council on policies that support women, families, and breastfeeding.

The evidence for the value of breastfeeding to children’s and women’s health is scientific, solid, and continually being reaffirmed by new research. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) 2005 Policy Statement on “Breastfeeding and the Use of Human Milk” references a substantial body of evidence from over 200 articles that meet scientific standards for accuracy and rigor. AAP experts agree with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in recommending exclusive breastfeeding for six months and continued breastfeeding for the first year of life and beyond. Additionally, the comprehensive, objective review and analysis of breastfeeding research released in 2007 by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality strongly supports the evidence of health benefits demonstrated in the research:

  • For the child: reduced risk of ear, skin, and respiratory infections, diarrhea, sudden infant death syndrome, and necrotizing enterocolitis; and in the longer term, reduced risk of obesity, type 1 and 2 diabetes, asthma, and childhood leukemia.
  • For the mother: reduced risk of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, and postpartum depression.

Yet the breastfeeding experience is valuable for so much more than the health benefits imparted by a mother’s milk: breastfeeding forms a bond between mother and child in a way that both nourishes and nurtures. But until American society genuinely recognizes the value of motherhood (and fatherhood), this factor will continue to be overlooked, and support for true work-family balance will remain elusive. The White House Council has a unique opportunity to bring about significant progress in work and family policies in this area.

Likewise, breastfeeding is intimately linked with the focus area of women’s economic security. Many mothers find breastfeeding to be both cheaper and easier than buying and preparing formula, but working outside the home still presents a major challenge. Employment is one reason that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently found that 60% of women do not meet their own breastfeeding goals. Even fewer achieve the medically recommended goals for optimal breastfeeding. The U.S. is the only developed country in the world without paid maternity leave. In a few states, laws require worksite support for breastfeeding mothers in all types of jobs. But in most states, mothers who breastfeed must manage with little or no employer support, and currently most women just can’t afford to stay home when their babies are young.

The future prosperity of our country greatly depends on the productivity of women, as workers and as mothers. Women’s economic security and the health—emotional and physical—of mothers and families translate directly into the potential of our future workforce and the vigor of our economy. But the achievement of these goals requires genuine liberation and empowerment, which only come with a woman’s supported right to fulfill both her productive and reproductive roles. Just as importantly, the role of fathers and other family members in children’s lives includes supporting their mothers to breastfeed.

USBC Chair Joan Younger Meek, MD, MS, RD, FAAP, FABM, IBCLC affirms: “The White House Council is a laudable step forward in America’s acceptance of common responsibility for the welfare of all mothers and children. The United States Breastfeeding Committee calls upon all women—and men—to join in our efforts to develop an inclusive vision regarding family and work policies and to find ways to integrate breastfeeding with paid employment. Our work together can significantly improve women’s rights in the labor force, while also providing the support mothers and families desperately need.”

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