California and New Jersey are leading the way.
If you've done it, you know breastfeeding can feel like full-time job. So of course it is so much harder for mothers who want to breastfeed to continue if they have to head back to a paying job just weeks after giving birth.
Advocates for parental leave often suggest that paid leave policies could lead to higher breastfeeding rates, and a new study published in the American Journal of Public Health proves they are right. Researchers looked at breastfeeding rates in California and New Jersey after those states introduced six weeks of partially paid leave in 2004 and 2009. (More recently other states, like New York, have followed suit).
Since the introduction of the policies, breastfeeding rates in California and New Jersey have gone up, while states that don't have laws around paid family leave didn't see an increase.
"The important point is that both of the states we looked at had additional increases right after their paid leave policies were put into place," the study's lead author, Dr. Rita Hamad, says in a University of California San Francisco (UCSF) release.
According to Hamad, an assistant professor of family and community medicine, these policies are a great start, but they don't go quite far enough to help all families. The research suggests higher-income families get the biggest breastfeeding boost, because they are more likely to take advantage of partially-paid leave.
"Providing fully paid leave might give low-income mothers and fathers the support to be with their newborns," Hamad says.
According to the most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control, 24.9% of U.S. infants are breastfed exclusively for six months. In Canada (where parental leave is partially paid at 33% or 55% but can be taken for for a maximum of 61 weeks) the exclusive breastfeeding rate for the first six months is around 32%.
In Sweden, parents get up to 68 weeks of leave, and for 390 of the days, parents are entitled to nearly 80% of their normal pay (the rest is a flat rate). In Sweden, recent statistics put the exclusive breastfeeding rate for 4 month old babies at a whopping 51.2% (it drops sharply to 14.6% by six months due to introductions to solids).
When we look at the UCSF study and the policies and rates in other countries, it's pretty clear that nationwide paid parental leave would have an impact on breastfeeding rates.
California and New Jersey should be applauded for leading the way in providing American parents with six weeks of partially paid parental leave (as should the states that have followed their lead, we see you Rhode Island). Perhaps though, Massachusetts should be the new example for the rest of America. This summer, lawmakers there passed a paid family and medical leave law that will see parents at home with their new babies for 12 weeks—twice as long as California and New Jersey (and take home a much larger percentage of their pay, too).
We still have a long way to go, but this is a starting point that could change the way American mamas experience motherhood, and the way American babies are fed.