Congress Looks at Breast-feeding and the Workplace

New bill supports a woman's decision to breast-feed after a return to work.

Ginny Gerbasi's employer was supportive of breast-feeding - so when the Washington mom had to make a sudden business trip, her boss tracked down a portable breast pump and had it delivered to her.

Nursing mother Laura Sullivan wasn't so fortunate. The president of her Michigan company refused to let her pump milk anywhere on the premises, even in her car in the parking lot, she says. She was fired eight days after making the request.

Unfortunately, experts say Ms. Sullivan's story, while extreme, is more representative. Despite a few exceptions, most US employers give no support to breast-feeding mothers, contributing to the decision of many new moms to quit nursing once back on the job, they say.

But a bill introduced in Congress last week, the New Mothers' Breastfeeding Promotion and Protection Act, is designed to remedy the problem.

The bill would guarantee the right of working women to breast-feed, and grant them unpaid breaks of up to an hour a day to express milk during their child's first year. It would also offer tax credits for employers who set up nursing stations, provide breast pumps, or hire lactation consultants.

The bill marks the culmination of a recent wave of legislation in states and localities aimed at countering what experts view as deep-seated cultural, social, and economic bias against breast-feeding in the United States. It comes on the heels of new pediatric guidelines, announced in December, that urge women to nurse their babies for a full year.

"New moms are being torn between holding on to their jobs and providing the healthiest nutrition possible for their new baby," says Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York, who introduced the bill with the backing of 15 Democrat co-sponsors.

"There is no Republican interest yet," says a spokeswoman for Representative Maloney. She says the Democrats are trying to gather more co-sponsors, and are counting on a positive response from the public to the proposed legislation. But garnering widespread support may not be easy.

In the United States, breast-feeding is less widespread than in most other industrialized countries. Less than 60 percent of US women are nursing at the time of hospital discharge, and fewer than 22 percent continue to nurse six months later, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

(The official US goals for breast-feeding for the year 2000 are 75 percent at initiation and 50 percent at six months, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.)

For working women, the rates are even lower. About 55 percent of women employed outside the home start out breast-feeding their babies, but only 12.5 percent of full-time working mothers keep nursing for at least five months.

STUDIES show that employers, as well as mothers and infants, would gain substantially from making arrangements to enable working women to keep breast-feeding.

Research indicates that babies fed breast milk tend to be healthier, better developed, and more intelligent than those fed infant formula. Even babies who are only partially breast-fed benefit considerably, pediatricians say.

As a result, employers who support breast-feeding mothers benefit from lower parental absenteeism and reduced health-insurance costs - saving as much as $1,400 per baby per year, studies show.

Several large companies such as Amoco, Aetna, Kodak, as well as government agencies, offer nursing mothers on-site lactation rooms and equipment. The family-friendly programs also boost the loyalty and productivity of returning mothers, studies indicate.

For Ms. Gerbasi, a lawyer at the Agriculture Department's Food and Nutrition Service, having a "nursing mothers" room at work was the answer to an agonizing dilemma. "If at 11 weeks I had to come back knowing [my son] Michael would not get breast milk anymore it would have been gut-wrenching," she said. "I would have felt I was sacrificing my baby's health and future."

As it was, Gerbasi walked down the hall twice a day, unlocked a door and entered a private nursing room. It was outfitted with soft beige carpeting, a couch, a sink, refrigerator, and hospital-grade breast pump that Gerbasi used to express milk for Michael for the next day.

"I knew no one was keeping tabs on me, and I didn't have to pay for the 40 minutes a day I used the room," she says. "I really feel thankful."

Gerbasi was fortunate. Many employers' policies and attitudes discourage women who want to continue breast-feeding once they return to work, say experts and advocates.

For example, dozens of women have called Maloney's office to report lost jobs or pay as a result of nursing. Others have said employers bar them from expressing milk during breaks, or even harass them for doing so, Maloney says.

One woman "was able to make it to the bathroom to pump her milk. But when she did her male co-workers would actually stand outside her office and moo like cows," she said.

American social and cultural prejudices often underlie such incidents. Some Americans have an emotional aversion to breast-feeding, finding it "abhorrent" says Lawrence Gartner, chair of the AAP's work group on breast-feeding.

Other people view nursing as indecent. Indeed, much of the wave of breast-feeding legislation enacted in 14 states over the past four years has clarified that nursing in public is not indecent exposure, and thus not criminal behavior.

"The United States more than any other country has made the breast a sex object to the exclusion of its biologic functions," says Professor Gartner of the University of Chicago.

Sullivan believes her employer barred her from expressing milk because "he thought it was more sexual than functional. He thought it would be disruptive to the work environment if other people knew what I was doing," she says. She sued the company, which claimed her work was unsatisfactory. The case was settled out of court last fall.

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