Breast-feeding plays second fiddle to work, study finds

October 26, 1999

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- Research now shows what a mother already knows -- that the demands of her job have a direct impact on how long and how often she breast-feeds.

Working women make fundamental decisions about breast-feeding based on when they go back to their jobs, said Brian Roe, an assistant professor of agricultural, environmental and development economics at Ohio State University and study co-author.

"There is competition between breast-feeding and employment," he said. "In our study, the women who worked full-time represented the lowest percentage of breast-feeders, while the women working one to nine hours per week breast-fed most frequently."

The research appeared in a recent issue of the journal Demography.

Roe and his colleagues surveyed 712 women who planned to return to work within 12 months of giving birth. Each mother was asked to complete 11 questionnaires at various times throughout late pregnancy until 12 months postpartum. The researchers used data from the surveys to calculate the duration of both breast-feeding and leave from work. They also compared daily work hours and breast-feedings at infant ages three and six months. Breast-feedings also included breast milk expressed from the mother and fed to the infant by a bottle.

About half (54 percent) of the women who returned to full-time work (more than 34 hours a week) within three months after giving birth had stopped breast-feeding. That compares to only 35 percent of women who had not returned to work. At six months postpartum, 38 percent of the whole sample was still breast-feeding, and 84 percent had returned to work.

Roe and his colleagues also found that each additional week of leave from work increased breast-feeding duration by almost half a week.

"The greatest decrease in breast-feeding duration seems to occur when a woman returns to work in the first 12 weeks after giving birth," Roe said.

The women in the study breast-fed their infants an average of 21.5 weeks. They also took an average of 13 weeks of leave. "For the women that continued to breast-feed after returning to work, the number of hours worked had an effect on how often mothers breast-fed their babies," Roe said. For example, a woman working eight hours a day gave her infant about one-and-a-half fewer daily breast-milk feedings than a woman who wasn't working.

The American Association of Pediatrics encourages women to breast-feed for at least 12 months. According to the AAP, breast-fed infants have advantages in overall health, growth and development, as well as a significantly lower risk for a number of acute and chronic diseases.

Finding the time to breast-feed while working can be cumbersome, but some women manage to balance both. Of course, some women have access to child-care. But in addition to granting a mother leave from work, the researchers speculate that employer-provided space and break time for the expression of breast milk could be key to increasing how long and how often a woman breast-feeds.

"If women can find a way to balance breast-feeding and work demands, the effect of work on decreased breast-feeding duration disappears," Roe said.

Roe co-authored the study with Leslie Whittington of the Georgetown Public Policy Institute at Georgetown University; Sara Beck Fein of the Food and Drug Administration's center for food safety and applied nutrition; and Mario Teisl of the department of resource economics and policy at the University of Maine.

Data for this research came from the FDA's Infant Feeding Practices Study.
Contact: Brian Roe, 614-688-5777;
Written by Holly Wagner, 614-292-8310;

Ohio State University

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