As the presidential candidates debate their various best versions of how Medicare and Medicaid, good enduring insurance programs from the mid-’60s, should be rolled out after the dust settles post-2012 election, we are also looking to the Affordable Care Act to dissect and figure out what is in store for us in that massive undertaking of a law, just recently upheld in June.
Working mothers nationwide will be interested in the support they receive going back to work after their relatively short maternity leaves. In terms of baby feeding, the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends to parents, six months of exclusive breastfeeding, then gradually adding solid foods, and continuing breastfeeding until one year and beyond. Pediatricians are a lifeline to parents who aim to follow their instructions. So many new mothers are breastfeeding and going back to work, how do they make it all work?
Since 2003, Rhode Island has had a law on the books saying that employers should allow reasonable break time, provide a room and make an effort to let moms pump their milk or feed their baby at work. The 2010 newly upheld Affordable Care Act advises that businesses with 50 employees give mothers reasonable break times to pump their milk. The pumping should take place in a private room that is not a bathroom, and women should be allowed to pump through the first year. These stipulations are directed at hourly wage earners, making longer duration of breastfeeding more democratically accessible, if employers comply.
The lactation rooms can already be found all over our state in hospitals, universities and businesses. Many of these rooms were set up thanks to a program from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Women’s Health called “The Business Case for Breastfeeding,” which outlined the benefits to businesses and employers. The benefits include the relatively low cost of setting up such a room, that employees are more likely to return to work after giving birth and the diminished absenteeism of both parents because babies being breastfed and receiving breast milk are less likely to get sick or as sick.
Health plans associated with the businesses save money because of fewer illnesses and the resulting lower medical costs. These are the accommodations that have been made in the USA rather than the longer maternity leaves seen in other countries. Maybe in the future, there will be a combination of both the lactation rooms and longer maternity leave for women who desire it, and many do. Also, under Women’s Preventive Health Services in the bill, there is health coverage for clinical lactation support and counseling and necessary rental equipment. These additions are a significant perk to both women and providers and the fine points will need sorting.
The above laws and health coverage are very important to parents, who know that breastfeeding is the start to lifelong health. But they are also concerned that their babies, children and grandchildren should thrive in a clean and “green” environment. To that end, the International Lactation Consultant Association has advanced the following facts: About 10,000 square meters of land is needed for every cow used in the production of milk that becomes infant formula. Every year in the United States, 550 million cans of infant formula are sold. If these cans were stacked end to end, they would circle the planet one and one half times. Those cans leave 86,000 tons of metal and 1,230 tons of paper labels. Plastic bottles, nipples and pacifiers take 200-450 years to decompose.
The Rhode Island law from 2003, in retrospect, was innovative and cutting edge. That law and the original Affordable Care Act of 2010 and the upheld version of 2012 all protect a working woman’s right to provide her baby with breast milk. That right extends also to help to protect the environment in which our children grow up. We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children (Native American Proverb).
Michael W. Fink is the pre-natal education coordinator at Memorial Hospital of Rhode Island, a lactation consultant with the state WIC program and a member of the R.I. Breastfeeding Coalition and the Maternity Practices Collaborative.