Research has already shown that moms who take longer maternity leaves tend to have higher breastfeeding rates. But exactly how much time off should you plan for if you are committed to breastfeeding your baby for as long as possible? Three months or more, according to a large-scale study that found mothers in the US who stayed home for at least three months before returning to work were almost twice as likely to continue breastfeeding compared to women with much shorter maternity leaves.
To better understand the impact of maternity leave length on breastfeeding, researchers looked at breastfeeding and maternity leave data from over 6,000 mothers, all of whom had worked in the 12 months leading up to the birth of their child. Among moms who planned to take at least 13 weeks of maternity leave, as many as 74 percent began breastfeeding their babies; when moms were scheduled to take between one and six weeks off from work, early breastfeeding rates dropped to 65 percent and moms opted to exclusively formula feed instead. The real difference, however, showed up when maternity leaves came to an end. When women with shorter leaves went back to work, only 18 percent continued to breastfeed, researchers found, compared to 34 percent of women with a longer leave of three months or more.
"Many women have to return within six weeks of giving birth," Dr. Deborah Campbell, director of neonatology at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City, tells HealthDay. "But, it takes time to establish breastfeeding. Not every baby is born knowing how to breastfeed. Mothers can have feeding challenges. Mom and Baby need time to come in sync with each other. Even with high rates of breastfeeding initiation, when women have to go back to work, they often choose to combo-feed with bottle and breast, and the bottle undermines breastfeeding."
Breastfeeding and Work
Under the current US Family Leave and Medical Act, most employers are required to offer up to 12 weeks of unpaid leave following the birth of a child. However, 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 for leave. HealthDay reports that just five states—California, Hawaii, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island—offer maternity leave benefits that go beyond the federal law. Each state provides partial wage compensation to women after the birth of a child.
By comparison, Canada provides up to 17 weeks of paid maternity leave at 55 percent of a woman's wages, though individual provinces may have slightly different rules. Sweden offers a whopping 16 months of parental leave, with 80 percent of the worker's salary. Not coincidentally, breastfeeding advocates point out, both Canada and Sweden have higher breastfeeding rates than the US.
Short of moving to Montreal or Stockholm, in the US, "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 breastfeed," writes 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.