An increasing number of women today are continuing to breast-feed when they return to work or school. Most likely this is due to a renewed appreciation for the benefits of breast milk. Recent evidence has shown that in addition to the psychological benefits of bonding between mother and child, there are a multitude of physical benefits to the infant.
Clearly, breast-feeding makes good economic-and ecologic-sense. A study conducted by a California company found that breast-feeding among female employees resulted in a 36 percent reduction in infant illnesses and a 27 percent reduction in mothers' absenteeism. An in-house publication for Kaiser Permanente estimates a savings of $1 million to the HMO, merely from the reduced incidence of ear infections that might result from an increase in breast-feeding among its members.
One expert has estimated that universal breast-feeding for the first three months of babies' lives could decrease hospitalization for infants in the U.S. by $2 billion to $4 billion per year. These facts are startling.
If all this is true, why don't more women breast-feed and why don't they continue to breast-feed when they return to work or school? Women are neither encouraged nor supported in our culture as they are, for example, in Finland, where 95 percent of the babies are breast-fed and in Germany, where 70 percent are. In the U.S., women often face prejudice and criticism about breast-feeding instead of instruction and support. The breast has become so sexualized in our culture that some women are shamed into nursing their babies in bathroom stalls. It is indeed difficult to breast-feed while facing the disapproval of employers and acquaintances and the looks of scandalized passersby.
In response to this need and to support nursing mothers, the Women's Center has established the "Nursing Nest," a private space in which mothers can nurse their infants or pump their breasts. It has been well received. Said Valerie Booth, adjunct professor of literature, "An academic career and motherhood often do not accommodate each other. The new Nursing Nest makes wearing both hats much easier."
Mothers can also arrange their schedules so that their babies can be brought to them for feedings at the Nursing Nest, or they can use the space to pump their breasts for the next day's feeding. Breast milk will remain fresh in the refrigerator for about 48 hours; frozen breast milk keeps for about two months. Mothers can store their milk in a refrigerator at the Women's Center to pick up later in the day. Occasionally, institutions buy electric pumps-which are considered the most efficient, effective and comfortable-for their employees' use. The Women's Center is considering such a purchase.
For now, women such as Carrie Baker, a Law School graduate and PhD candidate in Women's Studies, can come to the Women's Center with their own portable pump. "As a graduate student, I have no office or dorm room. The Women's Center provides me with a relaxed space and clean facilities to pump my breast milk," she said.
Marianne Scharbo-DeHaan is an associate professor in the Nurse Midwifery Program in the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing.
Ali P. Crown is director of the Emory Women's Center.