Breastfeeding advocates have always known that breastfeeding is good for babies and for moms, but it turns out it may be good for the economy too. A new startling study, published in the journal Pediatrics, found that the lives of nearly 900 babies would be saved each year, along with billions of dollars, if 90 percent of U.S. women breast-fed their babies for the first six months of life.
The findings suggest that the health and economic benefits of breastfeeding have been "vastly underappreciated" by health experts, government officials, and the public in general. In fact, the authors conclude that there are hundreds of deaths and many more costly illnesses each year from health problems that breast-feeding may help prevent. These include stomach viruses, ear infections, asthma, juvenile diabetes, Sudden Infant Death Syndrome and even childhood leukemia.
The highlighted benefits of breastfeeding: Breast milk contains antibodies that help babies fight infections; it also can affect insulin levels in the blood, which may make breast-fed babies less likely to develop diabetes and obesity.
The analysis studied the prevalence of 10 common childhood illnesses, costs of treating those diseases, including hospitalization, and the level of disease protection other studies have linked with breast-feeding. They study concluded that an estimated $13 billion was lost each year due to the low breast-feeding rate — this monetary figure includes an economists' calculation partly based on lost potential lifetime wages — $10.56 million per death.
About 43 percent of U.S. mothers do at least some breast-feeding for six months, but only 12 percent follow government guidelines recommending that babies receive only breast milk for six months. And the study's authors were quick to point out that it is often jobs and other demands that make it impossible for women to do so.
That's certainly true for most of the women who I know who decided not to breastfeed or who chose to discontinue breastfeeding when their maternity leave ended. It is the rare workplace today that offers new mothers both the time and the private space to pump breastmilk during working hours.
It is encouraging that the government's new health care overhaul requires large employers to provide private places for working mothers to pump breast milk. And, of course, the hope is that this practice will filter down to smaller employers as well.
I'm curious as to what is the norm in today's workplace. So just how difficult (or easy) is it to pump breastmilk where you work?