Longer Maternity Leave Ups Breast-Feeding Rates

MONDAY May 30, 2011 -- Women who stay home longer after having a baby are more likely to breast-feed their babies, a new study indicates.

Researchers found that new mothers who were at home for three months or more were about twice as likely to be predominantly breast-feeding beyond three months. Results of the study are published in the June issue of Pediatrics.

"Women need to be helped. If the government could make changes, like extending the Family and Medical Leave Act, women would know they have job security, and it would help those who want to breast-feed," said study author Dr. Chinelo Ogbuanu, a senior maternal and child health epidemiologist in the division of public health at the Georgia Department of Community Health in Atlanta.

Even better, she said, would be making paid maternity leave available to all women. "That could help women stay home longer," Ogbuanu said. "Some women don't take leave because they don't get paid."

The U.S. Family Leave and Medical Act, which became law in 1993, requires that employers offer 12 weeks of unpaid leave after the birth of a child. But, the law does not apply to all employers. Businesses that have fewer than 50 workers are exempt and, in all cases, women must have held the job for a year or more and worked at least 1,250 hours in the past 12 months to be eligible. Just five states offer maternity leave that goes beyond the federal law. California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York and Rhode Island provide partial wage compensation to women after the birth of a child.

By comparison, Canada generally provides 17 weeks of paid maternity leave at 55 percent of a woman's wages, although this does vary by province, according to the United Nations Division of Statistics. Sweden offers 16 months of parental leave, with 80 percent of the worker's salary, and Japan offers 14 weeks, but at two-thirds pay, according to the U.N.

Previous research had pointed to the length of maternity leave as a significant factor in a woman's decision on whether to even try to breast-feed, as well as for the early cessation of breast-feeding, according to background information in the study.

"Many women have to return within six weeks of giving birth," said Dr. Deborah Campbell, director of neonatology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City. "But, it takes time to establish breast-feeding. Not every baby is born knowing how to breast-feed. Mothers can have feeding challenges. Mom and baby need time to become in sync with each other. Even with high rates of breast-feeding initiation, when women have to go back to work, they often choose to combo-feed with bottle and breast, and the bottle undermines breast-feeding."

To get a better idea of the impact of maternity leave length on breast-feeding, the researchers reviewed data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study-Birth Cohort. This group included a nationally representative sample of 6,150 women who had given birth to a single child. All of the women had worked in the 12 months leading up to the birth of their child.

Slightly more than two-thirds of the women started breast-feeding, according to the study. About 74 percent of those who took at least 13 weeks of maternity leave initiated breast-feeding, compared with about 65 percent of women who took one to six weeks of leave.

Among women who stayed home more than three months, 34 percent continued to predominantly breast-feed for more than three months, compared with 18 percent of women who returned to work one to six weeks after childbirth, the study found.

"This study provides further support that we need to have more maternity leave for women to establish and promote the continuation of breast-feeding," Campbell said.

More information

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has more on breast-feeding.

Posted: May 2011


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