AFT Advocates for Nursing Mothers

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In the United States, 75 percent of new mothers breastfeed their babies but within six months, the number drops to 43 percent and only 13 percent are exclusively breastfed. For new mothers who nurse, the return to work makes breastfeeding a challenge.

A provision in the 2010 Affordable Care Act addresses some of those challenges. The law requires employers to provide reasonable break time for a mother to express milk as well as a clean, private place (not a bathroom) in which to do so.

Because implementing the law also can be challenging, a diverse group that has a stake in meeting these challenges took part in "The Business Case for Breastfeeding Summit," sponsored by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health, held Sept. 15 in Washington, D.C. The AFT was among the participants, which also included representatives from business, government, community organizations and other unions.

The AFT's membership is 80 percent female; the women work in diverse settings, "so that makes us ardent advocates for finding solutions that gives nursing mothers the support they need," said AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence, who spoke at the summit about the realities of implementing the law.

We have a "dual interest" in this discussion, said Lawrence. "We want new moms to have a stress-free transition back to work; and if they choose to continue nursing, they can do so with a peace of mind," she says. "It's also important for children to get to school ready to learn, Healthy babies are an important start to that process, and breastfed babies tend to be far healthier."

Although teachers currently are excluded from the 2010 law due to provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act that exempts salaried workers, Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) and Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) have introduced the Breastfeeding Promotion Act of 2011 in both houses of Congress, which addresses this issue.

Creative solutions are necessary to create policies that work well. Unions and management can work together to find solutions, Lawrence said, adding that, ideally, employers will base their programs on model workplace programs.

The AFT also is urging employers to create comprehensive written plans that detail all of the provisions of their programs. And employers should be encouraged to provide paid time off for nursing mothers who need to express.

Here are some resources on breastfeeding from the HHS Office on Women's Health and other organizations:

  • U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin has issued a "Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding" that outlines steps which can be taken to remove some of the obstacles faced by women who want to breastfeed their babies. A related fact sheet is also available.

September 19, 2011