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Baby-Friendly America? Close the Milk Gap

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We've heard of the trade gap, wage gap, and gender gap. Now comes the "milk gap."

It is the gap between the time a mother is able to feed her newborn baby breast milk and the twelve months that pediatricians recommend. Why twelve months? Because the health benefits of breastfeeding abound: babies have reduced chances of suffering from diabetes, leukemia, meningitis, obesity and a host of other illnesses. Yet 84 percent of mothers stop breastfeeding before their babies reach age one, in large part, because they have no choice: they need to return to paycheck jobs, many of which are incompatible with breastfeeding.

To become a more family-friendly country, we need to become more baby-friendly and help mothers close the milk gap.

Most babies have a milk deficit: they breastfeed for less than one year. Fortunate moms minimize the deficit by crafting extended paid leaves from work by taking what paid time off they have accrued all at once (for example, maternity leave plus sick days plus vacation days). Other mothers utilize on-site day care, which allows them to break from work to breastfeed. Still others bring their infants to work. Flexible schedules sometimes permit moms to work at home or part-time -- thereby enabling them to nurse their babies while resuming wage work responsibilities. And some moms resort to breast pumps to allow others to feed their babies' the precious mother's milk.

Yet no matter how hard mothers try to close the milk gap, they are left in nearly an impossible situation, trying to meet the twelve-month medical guideline by individually cobbling together a strategy that works perhaps for awhile, staving off guilt about how much milk and breast -- and what they together and separately offer -- their babies and they themselves need.

In some lucky families, babies have a milk surplus. This occurs when mom's number of years spent breastfeeding, divided by the number of kids nursed, exceeds the number one. I have four children. I nursed the eldest for three years, a set of twins for two years, and the last-but-not-least baby for one year. That's eight breastfeeding years divided by four kids, for an average of two years per child: a one-year per child milk surplus. How did I do it? A combination of the strategies: front-loading work as a professor to create an extended paid leave, becoming a stay-at-home mom for awhile, and working from home on a results-only, virtual team.

As an economist, my gut tells me that the milk gap should be closed by somehow offsetting milk deficits with milk surpluses. But that's not practical (though mothers who have donated breast milk to ICU units for premature babies will see the possibility). Instead, what's needed is for people who care about children and families to support public policies and workplace practices that help close the milk gap: paid family leave, flexible work arrangements (including time and space for pumping), convenient, quality child care, and on-ramps back into good jobs and careers for stay-at-home moms.

That sounds like progress toward a baby-friendly country to me.