Breastfeeding In New York

I sometimes joke that those who support the right of women to breast-feed need to develop a marketing strategy for the breast. This is because social pressures and highly effective marketing by formula companies discourages women from breast-feeding, even though it is in the best health and nutrition interests of their children.

During a recent delayed flight from Vermont to New York, a young mother—tucked in the window seat in the back of a plane—discreetly tried to breastfeed her child. The flight attendant threw her family off the plane. Events like these are not only disturbing when they happen, they lead to a much broader sense of intimidation for women who breastfeed.

We should be supporting women who choose to breastfeed, not pressuring them out of that choice. Therefore, in the State Senate, I have introduced S8511, the Breastfeeding Mothers' Bill of Rights.

This Bill of Rights, much like New York's Patients' Bill of Rights, would make sure new mothers have the information and support they need before delivery, while in the hospital giving birth, and after they leave that facility. It informs mothers of their right to breastfeeding resources and information before, during, and after the birth of their child, as well as the right to keep their newborn with them immediately after birth. It also limits the ability of pharmaceutical companies to pressure new mothers into using formula.

The Breastfeeding Bill of Rights is good for mothers, children, and our economy. Studies have shown that there are fewer medical problems and hospital stays for breastfed infants, which translates into lower healthcare costs and workplace absenteeism. Children who are breastfeed are less likely to develop food allergies, gastrointestinal infections, rashes, diarrhea, and are at a lower risk for sudden infant death syndrome, asthma and obesity than bottle-fed babies, especially when exclusive breastfeeding is continued from six months until the child is one year old. The American Academy of Pediatrics suggests breastfeeding to at least one year, up to age three.

In addition, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists supports extended breastfeeding because it reduces the risk of ovarian and breast cancers in breastfeeding mothers, as well as helps them lose baby weight faster. Other benefits include a lower risk of adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis.

The benefits are not just medical. A 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis estimated that at least $3.6 billion could be saved nationally if only 50% of mothers breastfed their infants until they were at least six months old. Breastfeeding is free and saves new mothers money. Mothers can expect to spend $700 or more on formula alone during their child's first year. There are critical medical benefits.

There are economic benefits. There are many reasons women choose to breastfeed their child. Yet despite these benefits, the Center for Disease Control's (CDC) 2004 National Immunization Survey found that while 70% of mothers breastfeed after discharge from the hospital, that number drops precipitously at six months of age to 14.4% for White mothers who are still exclusively breastfeeding their infants, 15.7% for Hispanic mothers and 8.6% for African American mothers. In 2001, the CDC found that women who receive the most in-hospital breastfeeding support are eight times as likely to continue breastfeeding for at least six weeks, compared to women without this support.

Having the law on your side is only as good as your knowledge of these rights. The Breastfeeding Bill of Rights codifies, among other things, a mothers' right to information, free from commercial interests, which provides the nutritional, medical and psychological benefits of breastfeeding; an explanation of some of the problems a mother may encounter, and how to avoid or solve them; the right for her baby to stay with her after delivery, to facilitate beginning breastfeeding immediately; to insist the baby not receive bottle feeding; to be informed about and refuse any drugs that may dry up breast milk; 24 hour access to the baby with the right to breastfeed at any time; the right to refuse any gifts or take-home packets, distributed by the maternal healthcare facility, that contain commercial advertising or product samples; and access to breastfeeding resources in one's community.

As basic as some of these rights are, they are continually violated. There is a very real problem of women feeling pressured out of breast-feeding because the information they received early in their child's life, was manipulated by commercial interests. Many others stop breastfeeding because of incidences like those of the new mother being kicked off her flight.

The Federal government's Healthy People 2010 initiative has set a goal of increasing rates of breastfeeding mothers to 75% upon birth, and 50% until six months of age. In the age of all this information, New York State should adopt policies that encourage women and families to make breastfeeding a natural and healthy choice for their newest family member.

Liz Krueger is the State Senator for New York's 26th Senate District, representing Manhattan's East Side and Midtown.