04/03/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Peaceful Revolution: Let's Offer Real Support to Breastfeeding Employees

As a physician and public health advocate, I am disappointed to see that one of the country's largest formula makers is sponsoring the new Workplace Lactation Toolkit. The toolkit's release in February came on the heels of the federal government's own toolkit, The Business Case for Breastfeeding . Hopefully, the controversy engendered will do more to call attention to the need to support lactating employees.

Supporting breastfeeding employees is a win-win situation for employers and employees. These employees require time and space to express milk during the workday or feed their babies directly. Yet the cost of not supporting them is great: formula feeding moms have 3 times as many one-day absences from work in the first year of life, compared to breastfeeding moms. Aetna found that companies can actually gain a $2.80 return on investment for every dollar spent supporting breastfeeding employees. Supporting lactating employees helps improve employee productivity and decrease employee turnover.

Unlike the toolkit from the federal government, the corporate toolkit is partly sponsored by Abbott (makers of Similac). Because infant formula directly competes with breastfeeding for market share in infant nutrition, any successful breastfeeding program would cut into Abbott's sales and profits. The only way to sell more formula is to sell less breastfeeding. With a formula logo on the bottom of every page of materials, Abbott's motives here are unlikely to be pure.

Previous research on breastfeeding materials from formula companies have shown that they undermine breastfeeding, particularly in first-time mothers, women of color, and those with lower educational levels. CDC data shows that 40% of women do not even meet their own breastfeeding goals, and far more do not meet the medical recommendation to breastfeed exclusively for six months with continued breastfeeding for at least the first 1-2 years of life.

Early cessation of breastfeeding is strongly linked with higher rates of maternal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease and heart attacks, as well as a host of acute and chronic diseases in children.

Not surprisingly, the toolkit is mediocre at best, and points users to the Abbott website for tips on breastfeeding, where formula is heavily marketed. The toolkit's sponsors erroneously claim that it has a unique focus on low-paid hourly workers. In fact, the reading level of the employee materials is far too high to be effective, breastfeeding is made to appear difficult, and the graphic layout makes it hard for employees to read. Its list of resources neglects any mention of the government's Business Case for Breastfeeding, a very telling omission. The corporate toolkit seems to be more of a way for companies to burnish their image, rather than make real change for lactating employees.

It appears that Abbott's partners, Corporate Voices for Working Families, and the publisher of Working Mother magazine, fail to understand the inherent conflict of interest and how their product may potentially undermine the health of women and children. If so, these companies wouldn't be the first to miss the connection. Hospitals and doctors' offices are quick to give nursing mothers free marketing "gifts" from formula companies, like diaper bags at hospital discharge. Many of these folks may have good intentions, but simply don't realize that they are not actually acting in their patients' best interest, and are not practicing evidence-based medicine. Recent CDC research shows that 70% of US hospitals continue to market infant formula to new mothers.

An organization called Ban the Bags is trying to change all that, and the numbers of hospitals who have eliminated the commercial discharge bags is growing. As a result, the formula companies have come up with new tricks, and it appears that this Workplace Toolkit might be one of them.

To truly support the health of women and children and help their own bottom lines, companies should be supporting breastfeeding employees using the Business Case for Breastfeeding, not poorly-designed material from a formula company.

A Peaceful Revolution is a blog about innovative ideas to strengthen America's families through public policies, business practices, and cultural change. Done in collaboration with, read a new post here each week.