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The Importance of Laws that Support Breastfeeding

We had some friends over for dinner the other night, and I made their entire meal in the bathroom. Sure, some of the prep materials touched the sink, counter, the floor, and the back of the toilet, but none of the food did. Yes, I flushed the toilet a few times, but I’m sure the water droplets didn’t get on the food. Oh, come on. It was fine. Thousands of women prepare their newborns’ food in the bathroom everyday while they are at work, and an adult’s immune system is much stronger than a newborn’s, so give me a break. What’s the big deal? If preparing food in a bathroom was so bad, wouldn’t we have laws against it?   

Oh wait. We do. Every state has strict food handling laws, and since the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act,  and the Reconciliation Act of 2010 (the part dealing with the breastfeeding laws are in Section 4207, beginning on page 477. I also put the text below for your convenience) was signed into law, we now have laws that require employers with over 50 employees to provide a space other than a bathroom for women to pump in private. Yet, last week the House of Representatives voted to repeal the health care bill, which included laws that protects a working woman’s right to pump at work and her right to pump in a private place other than a bathroom. Whether you are conservative or liberal or somewhere in the middle, if you’ve ever had to face choices about breastfeeding and work, chances are you are probably on the side of having more rights about feeding your baby while maintaining your right to work.   

The law really only provides the most basic rights for women: reasonable unpaid breaks to pump and a place other than a bathroom to pump. The law only protects women until their baby turns one, despite the World Health Organization’s recommendation that babies should be breastfed for at least two years. Arguably, the law doesn’t go far enough to fully protect women and babies, but it’s a good start.   

This law is just as much about civil rights as it is about providing preventative health care to babies and mothers. Women are the ones who breastfeed. Breastfeeding does not affect a man’s ability, opportunity, or right to work.   

Furthermore, this is a worker’s rights issue. Women in low wage jobs are less likely to be able to pump in the work place due to break restrictions and the lack of privacy.  For women in white collar professions, their job status likely already affords them a space (since they were more likely to have an office) and time (since they were more likely to be able to set their own schedule) vs. someone working an hourly job.  A woman shouldn’t be penalized because she is, for example, a cashier instead of a corporate lawyer.   

Fortunately, the repeal of the health care law is not expected to stand, and last week, the surgeon general issued a “Call of Action to Support Breastfeeding.” In conjunction with the call to action, The Office of the Surgeon General put out a fact sheet about breastfeeding and steps that individuals, employers, and agencies can take to support breastfeeding. I posted the text of the fact sheet at the end of this post.   

It is common knowledge now that breastfeeding is beneficial to children, but some people still question the validity of the laws that support breastfeeding. The following is our response to some of the questions, concerns, and arguments that we’ve heard from those who question the law:   

Women should just feed their babies formula. Babies have been fed formula for decades and they are perfectly fine.   

We are all for families feeding their babies formula – if it is their choice. A woman shouldn’t have to choose between breastfeeding and working. Many women don’t even have the choice to work – they must work to provide for their families. Studies repeatedly show that breastmilk provides more than the essential nutrients provided in formula. Breastmilk provides a baby with antibodies, it helps protect the immune system, and it has properties that allow it to be easily digested. Plus, breastmilk is free. Although a woman will need a pump and other supplies if she pumps at work, she would still save hundreds, or possibly thousands, if she can continue to breastfeed.   

Some babies have an intolerance or allergy to ingredients in baby formula. They can’t easily digest cow’s milk or soy. The cost for formula for babies with sensitive digestive systems can be astonomical. So not only is a woman working in a lower wage job more likely to face obstacles to breastfeeding, but the added cost of formula can be crippling to a family trying to raise a baby.   

It is easy to see why it is in the government’s, and ultimately the tax-payers’, best interests for women to have easier access to breastfeeding. Breastfeeding might help some women avoid the need to access government programs like WIC. In addition, with the extra immune support provided by breastmilk, there will be less strain on health insurance companies, health clinics, and other government agencies.   

What will employers have to give up in order to provide women with a private place to pump other than a bathroom? Some small businesses might not have the money or space. What if they had to lay off someone just to free up an office?   

First of all, if employers with fewer than 50 employees experience hardship when complying with this law, they do not even have to follow the law. The law provides this extra protection for small business.   

A private place can mean a number of things. Some companies might be able to convert a closet or a corner into a private space. The law is left ambiguous to allow companies find the right solution for them.  

If an employer says they are laying someone off due to this law, it would just be an excuse (a really bad excuse). This law would help keep a countless number of women employed.   

Here is a good article that explains more about an employers obligation under the law.   

Why don’t men get their own special place to go on breaks? This law seems like it is giving women more rights than men.   

The bottom line is that the female body is designed to carry babies and breastfeed. The laws that protect breastfeeding make the workplace more equal for women without impeding a man’s right to work. Laws are already in place that protect pregnant women from discrimination, and it makes sense to also protect lactating women from discimination.   

What about the employers? Is the government protecting them? These laws could affect business.   

Many states already have similar laws in place that protect breastfeeding, and some states have laws that provide greater protection than that provided by the federal law. These laws have been tested and they are working. According to an MSNBC article, AOL Inc. went above and beyond the law to provide rooms and equipment for breastfeeding mothers and they saw an increase in employee breastfeeding rates and a drop in health care claims for newborns.   

Providing adequate space and time for breastfeeding mothers is a win-win for employers and employees. Breastfeeding has the potential to prevent illness in both babies and mothers. In the long run, this will keep health care costs down. Health care costs are a burden on employers so any way to lower costs will help employers. Both moms and dads will potentially take fewer sick days, which increases productivity. Furthermore, it allows employers to keep their experienced employees. Women have choices about where to work, and the best employees may base their employment decisions on how the employer supports her work/life balance. A woman who can pump at work and continue the breastfeeding relationship with her child will work hard for that employer who respects her.   


 It is understandable that people are going to oppose the health care bill for many different reasons, but it is important to understand that this tiny section of the bill gives immeasurable freedom to millions of women and their families, now and in the future. It is unclear how congress will alter the health care bill, but it is imperative that these laws remain in place. Every woman in the country deserves the right to breastfeed her child for as long as she and the child are happy with the situation. Every family deserves the choice to choose breastmilk or formula based on the needs of their own family. The United States does not offer any type of paid leave for parents after their babies are born, so removing barriers to breastfeeding for those parents who do go back to work is the next best option to support breastfeeding mothers. 

 For more information about each state’s breastfeeding laws, see the NCLS Breastfeeding State Laws Page or Nursing Freedom’s interactive map.  

For helpful information about working and breastfeeding, see Dr. Sears’s 20 Tips for Working and Breastfeeding.  

Text from Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (‘‘PPACA’’; Public Law 111–148) consolidating the amendments made by title X of the Act and the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act of 2010 (‘‘HCERA’’; Public Law 111–152).   

SEC. 4207. REASONABLE BREAK TIME FOR NURSING MOTHERS.

Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (29 U.S.C.

207) is amended by adding at the end the following:

‘‘(r)(1) An employer shall provide—

‘‘(A) a reasonable break time for an employee to express

breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s

birth each time such employee has need to express the milk;

and

‘‘(B) a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from

view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public,

which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

‘‘(2) An employer shall not be required to compensate an

employee receiving reasonable break time under paragraph (1) for

any work time spent for such purpose.

‘‘(3) An employer that employs less than 50 employees shall

not be subject to the requirements of this subsection, if such requirements

would impose an undue hardship by causing the employer

significant difficulty or expense when considered in relation to

the size, financial resources, nature, or structure of the employer’s

business.

‘‘(4) Nothing in this subsection shall preempt a State law that

provides greater protections to employees than the protections provided

for under this subsection.’’.

 The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding

FACT SHEET

The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding outlines steps that can be taken to remove some of the obstacles faced by women who want to breastfeed their babies.

How many American women breastfeed their babies?

  • Three out of four mothers (75%) in the U.S. start out breastfeeding, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2010 Breastfeeding Report Card.
  • At the end of six months, breastfeeding rates fall to 43%, and only 13% of babies are exclusively breastfed.
  • Among African-American babies, the rates are significantly lower, 58% start out breastfeeding, and 28% breastfeed at six months, with 8% exclusively breastfed at six months.
  • The Healthy People 2020 objectives for breastfeeding are: 82% ever breastfed, 61% at 6 months, and 34% at 1 year.

What are the health benefits of breastfeeding?

  • Breastfeeding protects babies from infections and illnesses that include diarrhea, ear infections and pneumonia.
  • Breastfed babies are less likely to develop asthma.
  • Children who are breastfed for six months are less likely to become obese.
  • Breastfeeding also reduces the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
  • Mothers who breastfeed have a decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers.

What are the economic benefits of breastfeeding?

  • Families who follow optimal breastfeeding practices can save between $1,200–$1,500 in expenditures on infant formula in the first year alone.
  • A study published last year in the journal Pediatrics estimated that if 90% of U.S. families followed guidelines to breastfeed exclusively for six months, the U.S. would annually save $13 billion from reduced medical and other costs.
  • For both employers and employees, better infant health means fewer health insurance claims, less employee time off to care for sick children, and higher productivity.
  • Mutual of Omaha found that health care costs for newborns are three times lower for babies whose mothers participate in the company’s employee maternity and lactation program.

What obstacles do mothers encounter when they attempt to breastfeed?

  • Lack of experience or understanding among family members of how best to support mothers and babies.
  • Not enough opportunities to communicate with other breastfeeding mothers.
  • Lack of up-to-date instruction and information from health care professionals.
  • Hospital practices that make it hard to get started with successful breastfeeding.
  • Lack of accommodation to breastfeed or express milk at the workplace.

What can the health care community do?

  • More hospitals can incorporate the recommendations of UNICEF/WHO’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative.
  • Provide breastfeeding education for health clinicians who care for women and children.
  • Ensure access to International Board Certified Lactation Consultants.

What can employers do?

  • Start and maintain high-quality lactation support programs for employees.
  • Provide clean places for mothers to breastfeed.
  • Work toward establishing paid maternity leave for employed mothers.

What can community leaders do?

  • Strengthen programs that provide mother-to-mother support and peer counseling.
  • Use community organizations to promote and support breastfeeding.

What can families and friends of mothers do?

  • Give mothers the support and encouragement they need to breastfeed.
  • Take advantage of programs to educate fathers and grandmothers about breastfeeding.

What can policymakers do?

  • Support small nonprofit organizations that promote breastfeeding in African-American communities.
  • Support compliance with the International Code of Marketing of Breast-milk Substitutes.
  • Increase funding of high-quality research on breastfeeding.
  • Support better tracking of breastfeeding rates as well as factors that affect breastfeeding.

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Published in Breastfeeding