By Kara Morris
MONDAY, May 22, 2023 (HealthDay News) — Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when shelter-in-place orders were under way, new moms tended to breastfeed their babies two weeks longer than usual, new research shows.
“Stay-at-home policies enabled fathers to continue breastfeeding at home rather than returning to the workplace,” said study co-author Dr. Rita Hamad, assistant professor of family and community medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
“This indicates that there is a pent-up demand for breastfeeding, which may be hampered by the lack of a paid family leave policy in the United States,” Hamad said in a university press release.
Pandemic workplace closures in March and April 2020 created a natural experiment to see if the ability of 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 of more than 118,000 postpartum women, researchers examined whether and for how long babies were breastfed. They studied the initiation and duration of breastfeeding for children born before and after shelter-in-place policies.
The investigators found that the rates of women starting to breastfeed did not change. However, the duration of breastfeeding for women who started it went from as little as 13 weeks to nearly 15 weeks, an increase of 18%.
The effect of race and income on outcome. White women had the largest increase in duration, at 19%. The results showed that Hispanic women experienced the smallest increase, about 10%.
While high-income women had an increase in the duration of breastfeeding by about 19%, low-income women had an increase of less than 17%.
The study authors suggested that the gains for high-income and high-income women were likely because these groups had jobs that could be done more easily at home. Hispanic parents were more likely to have low-paying jobs that required them to work in person.
“Once again, the pandemic has helped highlight an area of health inequality — differences in workplaces that facilitate breastfeeding,” Hamad said.
Women continued to breastfeed their babies for longer until at least August 2020. Then the levels dropped back to where they were before the pandemic.
Our study suggests that the duration of breastfeeding in the United States would be higher and more comparable to peer countries if working parents were paid while they stayed home to care for their newborns, especially parents of color and those who had low-income jobs and could not afford them. “Take unpaid leave from work,” Hamad said.
Breastfeeding initiation for black and low-income families decreased during the pandemic, indicating lower opportunities for access to breastfeeding support during shelter-in-place orders, according to the study authors.
The researchers noted that the United States is the only high-income country that does not have a national policy for paid leave for new fathers. Only 25% of private sector workers receive paid family leave.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for six months.
President Joe Biden said in March that he plans to allocate $325 billion in the proposed 2024 budget for a paid family leave program.
The study was published online May 18 in American Journal of Public Health.
The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers more on the benefits of breastfeeding for the infant and the mother.
Source: University of California, San Francisco, press release, May 18, 2023