When the Affordable Care Act was signed into law in 2010, it expanded protections for nursing mothers in the workplace, mandating that all employees have a private place other than a bathroom and reasonable break times to breastfeed their child up to one year postpartum.

Seven years later, many families are still waiting on the accommodations they were promised. The American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends that children be fed breast milk exclusively during the first six months of life, after which parents should introduce solid foods while continuing to breastfeed. However, a study published in 2016 in Women’s Health Issues found that less than half of all mothers who start out breastfeeding continue to do so at six months postpartum. This is largely because 60 percent of nursing mothers do not have access to a clean, private space and adequate break time to pump breastmilk at work.

MomsRising delivers chocolate-filled breast milk bags to Senate office staff.

In the early morning of August 7, members of MomRising, an organization that advocates for policies to improve mothers’ rights, health and safety, took to Capitol Hill to bring this issue to light. Groups of mothers, some with their babies strapped to their backs, marched into Senate offices to deliver open letters signed by over 13,000 people, urging lawmakers to enforce and expand breastfeeding accommodations. Along with the letters, mothers delivered personal stories and breast milk storage bags filled with gold Hershey’s kisses to represent their “liquid gold” breast milk.

They also brought with them printouts of their #IPumpedHere Twitter campaign, launched earlier this year, which asks mothers to post photos of places they pumped. Responses showed mothers resorting to airplane bathrooms, utility closets, unsanitary bathroom stalls, and cubicles with no privacy. Tina Sherman, campaign director at MomsRising, says this is unacceptable. She wants senators to know that mothers deserve at the bare minimum a chair, a table, and privacy to feed their babies.

 

 

The demonstration helped kick off National Breastfeeding Month, intended to promote and raise awareness of the benefits of breastfeeding. The theme this year, “Charting the Course Together,” focuses on how data can be used to build and reinforce the connections between breastfeeding and its societal benefits.

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Tina Sherman, campaign director at MomsRising, at the Hart Senate Office Building in Washington, D.C.

In addition to keeping babies full and content, breastfeeding saves lives. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), breastfeeding provides critical nutrients for healthy growth and development during a child’s first year of life. Breast milk also works like a child’s first vaccine, passing along antibodies that help protect against potentially deadly illnesses like pneumonia and diarrhea. According to a joint study published by UNICEF and WHO, inadequate breastfeeding is responsible for more than 236,000 preventable child deaths each year.

Breastfeeding is also good for the economy, says Sherman. UNICEF and WHO report that if 90 percent of mothers met current recommendations for breastfeeding, they would save the U.S. economy nearly $13 billion per year by reducing pediatric health costs and deaths.  Failing to invest in breastfeeding therefore means not only lost lives but lost economic gains.

“If breastfeeding did not already exist, someone who invented it today would deserve a dual Nobel Prize in medicine and economics,” writes Keith Hansen, vice president for human development at the World Bank Group, in The Lancet.

Improving access to breastfeeding also plays a vital role in helping to bridge health disparities. Families of color are disproportionately impacted by lack of accommodations for breastfeeding, says Sherman, citing data published in Breastfeeding Medicine. African American women, for example, consistently have the lowest rates of breastfeeding initiation and continuation after six months postpartum. Racial minorities therefore serve to reap the most benefits from greater breastfeeding accommodations.

It is important to note that some mothers are unable to breastfeed their children as much or as often as is recommended. Mothers who are able to breastfeed, however, should be accommodated and supported, and laws requiring these accommodations need to be met.

By bringing these issues into view, advocates like MomsRising are helping families and lawmakers recognize the overwhelmingly positive impacts of breastfeeding and the major lack of support from employers and other institutions for parents who choose to breastfeed.