Breastfeeding: Why Won't The IRS Give Mothers a Break

11/17/2010 09:10 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The breastfeeding support community celebrated when this year's health care reform bill included breast pumping support provisions. Mothers were given the right to adequate break time and a private place to pump their breast milk at work. But these legislative changes missed one key piece of the puzzle--the breast pump.

The Internal Revenue Service does not allow nursing mothers to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breastfeeding supplies, which includes breast pumps. A quality double-electric breast pump can cost anywhere from $150 to $250, a significant investment for many moms.

What can you pay for with these flexible spending accounts? Prescription acne medication, dentures, braces, acupuncture, birth control and much more. But a breast pump, which could extend a mom's ability to feed her baby breast milk for months or even years, must be purchased out of pocket.

The IRS explains that by its standards, breast milk qualifies as simply a nutritious food, and since nutrition is not considered a medical condition, important breastfeeding equipment doesn't qualify for a tax break. Following that logic, a breast pump would fall into the same category as your average kitchen appliance.

Despite the plethora of evidence supporting breastfeeding's myriad benefits for babies, mothers and society-at-large, the IRS remains unconvinced that these benefits are enough to expand the use of these funds to nursing mothers. Let's look at the research.

Studies have shown that breastfed babies are protected against common childhood gastrointestinal and respiratory infections, stomach cancers, and peptic ulcers; have a reduced risk of depression and behavioral problems; might even have higher IQ; and can mean lower rates of obesity later in life--a cause championed by First Lady Michelle Obama in her Let's Move Campaign to reduce the rate of childhood obesity.

Women who breastfeed are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease and risk factors such as high blood pressure, diabetes and high cholesterol. Research has also shown that the longer a woman breastfed, the less likely she is to develop breast cancer. And the weight loss many women report as a bonus of breastfeeding is a significant benefit in a culture plagued by obesity.

In fact, a recent Harvard Medical School study that found if moms breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, it would save this country over 900 babies' lives and over $13 billion in health care costs.

What will it take to make the IRS understand that breast milk is much more than a nutritious, nice-to-have for babies? For starters, it will require education around the greater importance of breastfeeding to the health and wellness of moms and babies. I'd be interested to know who the IRS consulted when it came time to decide if breast pumps were important enough to be purchased using these accounts.

The IRS must understand the importance of breast pumps and other supplies in making continued breastfeeding a possibility in a country where employers are only required to provide 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave. The challenges associated with breastfeeding after the return to work is the number one reason moms report they stopped breastfeeding.

Yet medical professionals, the American Academy of Pediatrics (which petitioned the IRS to cover these expenses), and the U.S. branch of the International Lactation Consultant Association (USLCA), recommend women breastfeed their babies exclusively for a minimum of the first six months, and feed a combination of breast milk and other supplementary foods for an additional six months to reach a full year of breastfeeding. For a full-time working mom, it would be virtually impossible to reach this goal without the help of a breast pump.

Breast milk production follows the rule of supply and demand. If a breastfeeding mom regularly goes a full day without expressing breast milk, her supply wanes and will eventually dry up, leaving her no choice but formula. When mom and baby are separated for an extended period, breast pumps make it possible to stimulate milk production while the pumped milk can be stored for later use.

In our current economic climate, no one is asking for these expenses to be covered 100 percent, but some financial help could go a long way for many mothers. It could be the difference between affording a breast pump and not.

It's worth noting that the IRS states that mothers can get a note from their doctor or health care provider that explains why they should be allowed use these flexible spending accounts to purchase a pump. But this still places the burden squarely upon the mother to plead her case. And in the end, it could easily be denied.

The overwhelming response to this news, which spawned hundreds, if not thousands of comments, articles, and blog posts, has spurred to create a petition to tell Congress it can't discriminate against breastfeeding. Please take a moment to sign your name. And help spread the word by sharing this with as many friends and family as possible. Post it on Facebook. Send out a mass e-mail. Changing the IRS's position on breastfeeding could be one of the greatest successes for breastfeeding and, ultimately, for the health of our nation. I hope you'll be a part of it.