The XX Factor

“Breast Is Best”—Unless You Have to Work

Lovely, but not realistic for many women.


The CDC released an analysis of breast-feeding statistics on Friday, and overall the news is good: the percentage of infants ever breastfed increased by over four points from 2000-2008. Breast-feeding increased across all racial groups as well, though black women still lag far behind Latinos and white women. Over 75 percent of both white and Latino infants who were born in 2008 were breast-fed, while the number of black infants breast-fed the same year was under 60 percent. Researchers checked back in with moms of 2008 babies at six and nine months, and at both points the percentage of black babies breast-feeding was much lower than the percentage of white and Latino babies.

In order to try to close the gap, the CDC recommends increased support for non-profits that promote breast-feeding in minority communities, and increasing the number of lactation consultants in minority communities. Certainly those things could help, along with other CDC suggestions like increasing support for breast-feeding in hospitals that serve low-income neighborhoods.

But still, as of 2008, the overall percentage of babies still being breast-fed at six months was less than 45 percent. (Six months is the American Association of Pediatrics’ recommendation for duration of exclusive breast-feeding.) And I bet I know why: Breast-feeding after you return to work is a tremendous pain in the ass for even the most privileged women. I’m talking about the ones who got three months of paid maternity leave and have offices with blinds where they can pump breast milk in relative privacy. Even most white collar women are relegated to pump in some dank, makeshift closet that serves as a lactation room, and it’s nearly impossible for hourly workers to get the time to pump, let alone the space, since they don’t get paid for the minutes they’re not working (that’s why breast pumps getting covered under the Affordable Care Act might not actually lead to that many more babies getting breast milk).

For low-income women there’s almost no incentive to breast-feed, since formula is free with WIC, and very few poor women are in the kinds of jobs where they get any paid maternity leave at all to start the process, or in jobs that allow them to continue it.

As I’ve written in the past, the solution here—and this always ends up being the solution—is to join the rest of the developed world and give American moms paid maternity leave, and more of it, instead of using government money to promote breastfeeding. Sure, lots of moms still won’t breast-feed at six months—there are plenty of viable reasons in addition to the above to go with formula. But if we’re really serious about promoting breast-feeding for up to six months, there needs to be structural support beyond a few maternity ward posters telling women that breast is best.