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Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when shelter-in-place orders were ongoing, new moms tended to breastfeed their babies about two weeks longer than usual, new research shows.
“Stay-at-home policies enabled parents to continue breastfeeding at home instead of returning to the workplace,” said study co-author Dr. Rita Hamad, an associate professor in family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“This suggests a pent-up demand for breastfeeding, which may be stymied by the lack of a national paid family leave policy in the U.S.," Hamad said in a university news release.
The pandemic's workplace closures in March and April 2020 created a natural experiment for whether the ability for parents of newborns to stay home led to changes in breastfeeding patterns, according to the study.
Using national survey and birth certificate data from 2017 to 2020 for more than 118,000 postpartum women, the researchers examined whether the infants were breastfed and for how long. They studied breastfeeding initiation and duration for babies born both prior to and after shelter-in-place policies.
The investigators found that rates of women who started breastfeeding their infants didn't change. Yet length of breastfeeding for women who did initiate it went from less than 13 weeks to nearly 15 weeks, an increase of 18%.
Race and income affected the outcome. White women had the biggest increase in duration at 19%. Hispanic women experienced the smallest increase at about 10%, the findings showed.
While women with high incomes also had length of breastfeeding increase by about 19%, those with low incomes increased by less than 17%.
The gains for white and high-income women were likely because these groups had jobs that could be done at home more easily, the study authors suggested. Hispanic parents were more likely to have lower-wage jobs that required them to work in person.
“Once again, the pandemic served to highlight an area of health inequity — differences in workplaces that facilitate breastfeeding,” Hamad said.
Women continued to breastfeed their children for a longer duration through at least August 2020. Then levels dropped to what they were before the pandemic.
“Our study suggests that breastfeeding duration in the U.S. would be higher and more comparable to peer countries if working parents were paid while staying home to care for their newborns, particularly parents of color and those with lower-income jobs who can't afford to take unpaid time off work,” Hamad said.
Initiation of breastfeeding for Black and low-income families dipped during the pandemic, which suggests less access to breastfeeding support during shelter-in-place orders, according to the study authors.
The United States is the only high-income country without a national paid leave policy for new parents, the researchers noted. Just 25% of people who work in private industry have access to paid family leave.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding.
President Joe Biden said in March that he plans to allocate $325 billion in his 2024 budget proposal for a permanent paid family leave program.
The study was published online May 18 in the American Journal of Public Health.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on the benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mom.
SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, news release, May 18, 2023
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