By Tara Murtha and Margaret Zhang
August is National Breastfeeding Month, which is a good time to examine a simple way we can help promote breastfeeding in Pennsylvania, and why it matters.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends infants are breastfed exclusively for the first 6 months after birth, then continue breastfeeding while gradually introducing solid foods until the infant is one year old.
Medical experts cite unequivocal evidence that breastfeeding provides tremendous health benefits to babies and mothers (or breast-feeding parent, in the case of transgender or gender-nonconforming birth parents).
According to the AAP, newborn babies who are breastfed experience lower rates of bacteremia, diarrhea, respiratory tract infections, diabetes, certain cancers, and many other diseases and conditions. Benefits for parents who breastfeed include decreased risk of breast and ovarian cancers, decreased postpartum bleeding, and more rapid uterine involution, among other health-protections.
Given this data, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention cite encouraging and enabling breastfeeding as “a key strategy” to improve public health.
The good news is CDC research finds almost 83 percent of new mothers begin breastfeeding soon after giving birth. Less than 50 percent of those parents, however, are still breastfeeding at six months and only about 25 percent are still breastfeeding when the child is a year old.
The high initiation rate indicates that new parents and babies both desire to breastfeed. The drop-off reflects our failure as a society to sustain it.
One major reason cited for this failure is the lack of support in the workplace.
Anyone who has taken high school biology should know that to develop and maintain a milk supply, a breastfeeding parent cannot routinely go eight to ten hours a day without expressing milk.
Therefore, a working parent must be able to express milk, or pump, during the workday to continue breastfeeding at home. Everyone’s body is different, but many need to pump two times during an eight-hour shift for 15-20 minutes each time to maintain a milk supply.
Legislation sponsored by state Rep. Mary Jo Daley, D-Montgomery, known as the “Workplace Accommodations for Nursing Mothers Act” would allow employees across the Commonwealth to take some unpaid break time (or the ability to use the paid break time they already have) to pump milk and ensure access to a private, clean place to pump in the workplace. This legislation fills the gaps in current federal protections.
This bill (HB1177) has been introduced every session for more than a decade. Yet every single session, the leadership of the Pennsylvania Legislature has blocked it.
We’re on track for more of the same this session: Daley’s bill has been stalled in committee for more than a year.
After all these years, we want to know why.
The reason can’t be fear of unintended consequences, because this isn’t new or complicated legislation. In fact, Pennsylvania is an outlier: About half of all states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico have already implemented this basic health protection.
The reason can’t be fear of burden on businesses. To ensure fairness to employers, this bill does not require them to provide space for their employees to pump if doing so would result in an undue hardship.
We even have a test study right here in Philadelphia, which passed an ordinance providing the protections to workers back in 2014. The only consequence has been more babies of working parents able to breastfeed.
So why not extend to all workers in the Commonwealth?
The reason can’t be lack of knowledge. The Women’s Law Project and other advocates testified about the issue at a public meeting before the Pennsylvania House Committee on Labor & Industry back in 2015. Yet, this legislation did not advance that session, or the next session, or this one.
This repeated failure to promote infant and maternal health in Pennsylvania constitutes a crisis.
The infant mortality rate in Pennsylvania is higher than the U.S. average, which is consistently higher than the average similarly developed countries. As usual, Black and Hispanic babies are disproportionately harmed.
The U.S. has the worst maternal mortality rate among similarly wealthy countries. In Pennsylvania, the maternal mortality rate has doubled since 2004–again with statistics severely stratified by race and ethnicity.
Mothers are sole or co-breadwinners in more than 67 percent of Pennsylvania households. Parents should not have to take leave or quit their job in order to breastfeed in Pennsylvania.
So why does the leadership of the Pennsylvania Legislature, who frequently call themselves “pro-life,” repeatedly deny babies access to all the benefits of their mother’s milk?
With no reasonable explanation for why this legislation is consistently blocked, we’re left to wonder if the leadership of the Pennsylvania Legislature is simply determined to punish babies of working parents.
Is there another explanation? If so we, and working parents across Pennsylvania, would love to hear it.
Tara Murtha is the communications director, and Margaret Zhang is a staff attorney, at the Women’s Law Project, a public interest legal organization focused on advancing and defending the rights of women and LGBTQ+ people in Pennsylvania and beyond. They write from Philadelphia.