Do you know that components found only in breastmilk have been discovered to establish the immune system’s ability to better fight off flu, SIDS, ear infections, diabetes, cancer and depression? Do you know that the longer a mother breastfeeds her risk of ovarian cancer, breast cancer, coronary artery disease and diabetes is reduced? Do you know that breastfeeding duration is associated with improved motor skills into adolescence as well as less need for orthodontia?
As a physical therapist and lactation consultant providing home visits to new families seeking help to get breastfeeding and development smoothly started, I am passionate about sharing this information. Breastfeeding duration cumulatively reduces healthcare costs by optimizing immune function and emotional attachment. Hence, a global recommendation to breastfeed for at least 1 year. Yet 60 percent of women do not achieve personal breastfeeding goals, and Ohio has a breastfeeding rate of only 20 percent at one year. Barriers to achieving recommended breastfeeding rates include limited access to skilled care and lack of paid leave. Without adequate paid leave, many mothers have no choice but to return to work before healed from birthing and before breastfeeding is well established for continuation beyond the early weeks. I see it too often!
The instinct to breastfeed is usually quite natural, but the act of breastfeeding does not always come easily. While some mothers get off to a great start, others experience challenges that take time, patience and support to improve. Regardless of ease or effort, all are recovering from birthing, and adjusting to a new reality that typically only begins to be manageable around six to eight weeks. However, in Ohio, many women have no choice but to return to work when accumulated vacation pay is usually depleted. There are many more working part time jobs and/or jobs without benefits that simply can’t afford to take any time off before either returning to work or seeking public assistance. In fact, in the United States, one in four people returns to work less than 10 days after giving birth.
Breastmilk is a living tissue no different than blood, constantly changing to meet developmental needs. Breastfeeding is a supply and demand process. A baby breastfeeds not just for food, but for comfort and development. The more a baby breastfeeds, the more milk will be maintained. The separation that ensues upon return to work jeopardizes the closeness necessary for recommended breastfeeding exclusivity of six months and duration of at least one year, increasing the risk of illness in both mother and child.
Workplace laws to provide space and time to pump breastmilk throughout the first year have eased return for some, although the vast majority of workers lack even this basic accommodation for new mothers in the workplace. However, this gives a false perception that drinking breastmilk from a bottle is equivalent to breastfeeding. The immune system’s ability to better fight off those mentioned diseases relies heavily on a baby exchanging fluids at the breast to give a mother’s body information on what kind of antibodies to responsively make for the baby at any given moment. Additionally, the long-term motor development benefits and reduced need for orthodontia rely on the actual mechanics of breastfeeding to develop foundational mouth, jaw, head and neck strength as well as spacing for future tooth eruption. Our bodies develop in the way they are used! Time is needed so that those with breastfeeding goals have the best support possible to fully experience the benefits for themselves and the newest of Ohioans.
Paid leave duration is correlated with longer breastfeeding duration in countries around the world. Longer breastfeeding duration is correlated with improved health outcomes. Improved health outcomes ultimately translate to less sick days and more productivity for businesses. As science continues to confirm the risks of not fully supporting new families with paid leave, public policy must catch up.
State lawmakers recently announced that they will be introducing legislation in the Ohio House and Senate that will create a statewide paid family and medical leave insurance program. I urge current state legislators to support the proposed paid leave legislation by signing on as co-sponsors of the bill. The United States is the only developed country in the world without some guaranteed form of paid leave. In the absence of a national standard, five states and D.C. have enacted paid leave policies for the benefit of all. Ohio should be next. It is good for business, good for health, and most importantly, good for families.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Allyson Wessells is a physical therapist and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) providing care through her small business, Natural Nurturing, in Columbus, Ohio. Originally from McArthur, Ohio, in Vinton County, she became an IBCLC in 2014, earned MPT degree from Northwestern University in 1999, and Bachelor of Science degree in Biology from Ohio University in 1997. As a PT and IBCLC, she focuses on optimizing nourishment and growth for lifelong health. Other services include presentations emphasizing the importance of breastfeeding and neurodevelopment understanding as foundations for preventive healthcare.