Keeping Mum

Dita De Boni looks at the trials and tribulations of being a parent.

Pump up the mams

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Could it be true that the prevalence and promotion of breastfeeding and breast pumping in the modern workplace is a government's cheap way out of providing comprehensive paid maternity leave?

Conspiracy theory, or something more? A fascinating article from the New Yorker this month finds that while American women overwhelmingly return to work just weeks after their babies are born - they are only entitled to 12 weeks' unpaid maternity leave - their employers must, by law in many states, go to a "reasonable effort" to accommodate nursing mothers and their bottled milk. What that means in some workplaces such as Goldman Sachs is that female employees can use an online booking service to book time in the company's plush lactation rooms.

Breast pump producers offer employers free advice on how to reduce absenteeism and time wasting by having the full works 'n jerks set-up for lactating mothers; food stamp grants can also be used on pumps for eligible women.

A laudable aim, one might think, but the author points out that while breast milk is indeed fantastic for baby's health, it's the physical bonding with, and presence of, the mother that also confers great benefits.

After years of formula-led feeding this was the catch-cry of the hippie era (the author referring to this period by saying "in the 1960s, nursing as a mammalian love-in began making a comeback, at least among wealthier women ... in the decades since, the womanly art of breast-feeding has yielded, slowly but surely, to the medical science of human milk.")

Sure, pumping breast milk during a busy working day can be done, but as anyone who has ever pumped her breast milk knows, the more busy you become, the more difficult it is, even with plush surrounds.

Breasts tend to fill with milk at certain periods - not taking kindly to delays from long meetings or late lunches. Pumping mothers often need to conjure up images of their babies before they can "let-down" - hardly something easy today in the middle of the workplace. It's energy intensive, and it's easy to see your milk supply dwindle when there are lots of other things happening.

So it's easy to see why in the US rates of mothers breastfeeding their young, starting at just below 75 per cent before they leave hospital, soon falls away rapidly - with babies exclusively breastfed at six months down to just 12 per cent.

What about in New Zealand? Our 14 weeks' paid maternity leave may provide some incentive for mothers to stick with breastfeeding, according to the New Zealand Breastfeeding Authority (yes, there is one!) 19-21 per cent of European and other babies are reported to be fully breastfeeding at six months. (17-18 per cent for Pacific babies, and for Maori babies this rate decreases to 13-14 per cent).

Better than the US, but not that much better. Not only that, but a new law passed in September last year apes US moves, saying that where reasonable and practicable, facilities and adequate breaks must be provided to allow mothers to breastfeed or express milk.

Fine as it goes, and surely something any humane employer would do anyway. But why doesn't the government just suck it up and pay women a reasonable wage to stay at home with their babies for six months and (try and) breastfeed them? From a health perspective, but also from a simple bonding perspective, it would be much more economic sense than all the breastfeeding legislation - and breast pumping - in the world.

On the net: Small businesses welcome law on work breaks

Pictured above: Breast feeding in the workplace is becoming commonplace in the US, where mothers are being encouraged back to work just weeks after giving birth.  Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

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