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The Role of Systems, Knowledge, and Social Support in Breastfeeding

By: Kezia Ofosu Atta, Policy Assistant, Groundwork Ohio

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Photo by Dave Clubb on Unsplash

August marks National Breastfeeding Month, an aspect of parenting that has occurred for centuries. Many factors prevalent through society and time have contributed to families meeting the nutritional needs of their children in various other ways, including dealing with physical health barriers, workforce issues, and other challenges out of their control. Thus, breastfeeding has become a privilege for a lot of mothers and children. It is important for us to advocate for breastfeeding and put systems in place to make things better while also highlighting different types of barriers to breastfeeding and raise awareness that breastfeeding is a choice.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Mothers and Children

Breastfeeding is a natural and nourishing experience that helps parents and children bond. On its face, babies receive many benefits from breastfeeding such as nutritional nourishment that leads to brain and body development, secure attachment to the mother that positively influences the child’s mental health, and important cognitive and emotional development that results from the bond of breastfeeding.

It is important to highlight that if a parent does not breastfeed, that does not mean their child will not be set up to succeed or face negative outcomes. In Positive Effect of Breastfeeding on Child Development, Anxiety, and Postpartum Depression, researchers found that “Postpartum mothers with low risk of Postpartum depression breastfed their children more often than mothers with a mild or severe risk of perinatal depression.” Breastfeeding can be considered a “protective factor for postpartum mood swings,” contributing to the health benefits for the mother and child.

Health and Social Difficulties that Discourage Breastfeeding

Many women face societal pressure regarding how they decide to feed their children. Some women are plagued with external pressure for either breastfeeding too long into their child’s development or too little into their child’s development. Researchers found that “breastfeeding and non-breastfeeding women may experience judgment and condemnation in interactions with health professionals as well as within community contexts, leading to feelings of failure, inadequacy, and isolation.”

Although breastfeeding is a natural act, mothers have been socialized to see it as a brave act, often negatively affecting mothers who face actual health issues that prevent them from being able to breastfeed.

Children can thrive whether breastfed or formula-fed. Systems should be put in place that encourage women to breastfeed if they can, but women should not be forced to breastfeed if it places a heavy burden on their health, career, and wellness.

Breastfeeding in the Workplace

Returning to work and various levels of work flexibility and policy can have a tremendous impact on breastfeeding. In a study conducted on 715 employed mothers, 90.1% of mothers who were on maternity leave from shift work breastfed. This remarkable percentage decreased to 21.5% after returning to work for one-to-six months and further decreased to 17.9% after more than six months in the workforce. Additionally, workers with non-traditional hours breastfed at a rate of 87.6% during maternity leave, 24.1% for the first six months after returning to work, then actually increased to 34.6% after six months of returning to work.

Systems in place at workplaces can affect a working mother’s ability to breastfeed. In a recent study conducted at a female labor-intensive electronics manufacturing firm in Taiwan, researchers found that when workplaces establish a dedicated breastfeeding room, it “encourages and increases the rate of continued breastfeeding.”

Recent developments have also been made in labor laws. One is the PUMP Act, signed by President Biden in December of 2022. This act enables “more nursing employees the right to receive break time to pump and a private place to pump at work.” It is also an improvement to the already amended provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act, which permits “employers to provide a reasonable break time for an employee to express breastmilk for their nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee need to express milk.”

Although the breastfeeding provision in the Fair Labor Standards Act and the PUMP Act are both vast legal improvements, they do not guarantee milk expression at the workplace for women who choose to breastfeed their children past a year.

Even when difficulties are met in workplaces, women still face barriers to breastfeeding outside their homes and when feeding in public places. Women are often criticized for openly breastfeeding in public places as the act has been sexualized and mothers are forced to cater to people’s feelings about public breastfeeding to make others comfortable.

In Shame if you do-shame if you don’t: women’s experiences of infant feeding, researchers recounted stories of women’s experiences with breastfeeding where one woman said, “I didn’t do it (public breastfeeding). I was more concerned with people looking and thinking why is she doing that in public she shouldn’t be there, she should be doing that somewhere behind doors, inside in privacy.”

Various health challenges can also decrease or prevent breastfeeding. These include mastitis, trauma, traumatic birth, PCOS, and hypoplastic breast tissue. It should be widely acknowledged in breastfeeding advocacy that some mothers may be unable to breastfeed due to health and other socio-emotional reasons, and they should not be pressured.

Looking Forward Although various improvements have taken place including an increase in available public and workplace breastfeeding areas, more advocacy for open breastfeeding, and an increase in breastfeeding educational opportunities and resources, more work must be done. We hope that in the coming years, breastfeeding and its awareness will be available for all women and expectant individuals, leading to knowledge, comfortability, and a sense of pride when people make decisions about their choice to breastfeed.


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