THE BLOG
06/21/2010 05:17 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Peaceful Revolution: Breastfeeding - A Secret Weapon to Save Billions of Dollars

The American Academy of Pediatrics' prestigious journal, Pediatrics, recently released a cost analysis on breastfeeding. The bottom line: The United States could save $13 billion annually if 90 percent of families were able to comply with medical recommendations to breastfeed exclusively for six months. This could also prevent over 900 infant deaths in our nation, for which of course, there is no price tag.

No brainer, right? So then why are only about 14 percent of all U.S. mothers able to breastfeed exclusively up to the six month doctor-recommended period, according to the Centers for Disease Control, instead of any number approaching 90 percent? More on that in a minute.

First a bit more from the cost analysis study.

This newly released study looked at the costs associated with several childhood diseases that are known to be prevented or reduced when babies are breastfed. These include ear infections, asthma, leukemia, obesity, gastroenteritis, hospitalizations due to lower respiratory infections, sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and others.

The researchers found that: "Current U.S. breastfeeding rates are suboptimal and result in significant excess costs and preventable infant deaths. Investment in strategies to promote longer breastfeeding duration and exclusivity may be cost-effective."

Certainly investing in programs to educate expectant mothers about the value of breastfeeding is helpful, but this is not likely to turn the dial up significantly. The vast majority of moms have already gotten the message, so what's the barrier?

Let's follow the bouncing ball.

About half of the U.S. workforce are now women. Studies gathered by the Packard Foundation indicate that when women can take time off from their jobs for having a baby, breastfeeding rates go up. And statistically speaking, one of the most important determinants of whether parents take leave from work after having a baby is if that leave time is paid.

In other words, if working women are offered paid family leave, they are more likely to be able to afford to take the time that's needed to recover from birth of a baby and to establish and maintain breastfeeding.

But the U.S. does not require companies to provide paid family leave. Afghanistan does. Haiti does. Djibouti does. According to a Washington Post online article last week "one hundred and seventy-seven nations have laws on the books requiring that all women, and in some cases men, receive both income and job-protected time off after the birth of a child."

Our country does have the Family and Medical Leave Act, but this provides only for unpaid leave and doesn't cover all workers. Consequently, to keep the family budget afloat, many women have to return to work in a couple weeks after birth, or even after a few days.

We are left with a situation were only affluent women, or the relatively small number of women whose employers voluntarily offer paid leave, can afford to stay home with a newborn for any significant length of time. For most middle and lower income families, the choice can be gut wrenching -- the mother can either take some time to stay home to bond with her infant baby (but lose much needed income), or go to work soon after giving birth to ensure that the family can continue to pay the grocery bills, the doctor bills, the mortgage or the rent...and that list goes on.

National advocacy groups like MomsRising and the National Partnership for Women and Families have been organizing at the state and national level for passage of paid family leave legislation. And support for this is gaining across the ideological spectrum with a majority of Republicans as well as Democrats saying that businesses should provide paid family and medical leave.

While some say that the cost to business would be prohibitive, this is actually not the case. In California and New Jersey, the two states that currently provide paid family leave, the funding for this benefit is provided by employee contributions to the states' temporary disability insurance plans.

One positive development in recent years is that more companies, thought still a significant minority, have taken the initiative to make it easier for women to pump breast milk at work by creating private and sanitary locations to do so. And now, the recently passed healthcare reform legislation will extend this further given provisions that make it mandatory for employers to provide accommodations for women who want to pump at work.

However, such excellent interventions in the workplace are not sufficient for increasing breastfeeding rates in our country. Unless women have been able to start breastfeeding in the first place, which is where paid family leave policies come in, workplace accommodations are for naught.

Everyone wants healthy babies, and we all sure would like to bring down our country's health care costs. Breastfeeding is a powerful bridge to connect these twin goals. And one of the main paths for ensuring that mothers have a real choice in initiating and maintaining breastfeeding is paid family leave.

Breastfeeding takes time, and time is money when you have to work for a living. Paid family and medical leave would allow more women the option to breastfeed for longer periods of time by taking away the economic barriers to complying with the good doctor's recommendation.

With paid family leave policies, more kids will live, less will be sick, the U.S. will save billions of dollars...and without a doubt, families will be a lot happier.

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 MomsRising.org, read a new post here each week.