By Cara Murez
health day reporter
MONDAY, May 22, 2023 (HealthDay News) — At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, when shelter-in-place orders were in place, new moms tended to breastfeed their babies about two weeks longer than usual, according to new research.
“Stay-at-home policies allowed parents to continue breastfeeding at home instead of returning to the workplace,” said study co-author Dr. Rita Hamad, associate professor of medicine. family and community at the University of California, San Francisco.
“This suggests pent-up demand for breastfeeding, which may be hampered by the lack of a national paid family leave policy in the United States,” Hamad said in a university press release.
The pandemic-driven workplace closures in March and April 2020 created a natural experiment in whether the ability of parents of newborns to stay home led to changes in breastfeeding habits, according to the study.
Using national surveys and birth record data from 2017 to 2020 for more than 118,000 postpartum women, researchers examined whether infants were breastfed and for how long. They studied the initiation and duration of breastfeeding for babies born before and after shelter-in-place policies.
The investigators found that the rates of women who started breastfeeding their babies did not change. However, the duration of breastfeeding for women who initiated it increased from less than 13 weeks to almost 15 weeks, an increase of 18%.
Race and income affected the outcome. White women had the largest increase in duration at 19%. Hispanic women saw the smallest increase at around 10%, according to the results.
While high-income women also saw their breastfeeding duration increase by about 19%, those on low-income increased by less than 17%.
The gains for white and high-income women were likely due to these groups having jobs that could be done more easily from home, the study authors suggested. Hispanic parents were more likely to have low-paying jobs that required them to work in person.
“Once again, the pandemic has highlighted an area of health inequity — differences in workplaces that make it easier to breastfeed,” Hamad said.
The women continued to breastfeed their children for a longer duration until at least August 2020. Then the levels fell back to where they were before the pandemic.
“Our study suggests that breastfeeding duration in the United States would be higher and more comparable to peer countries if working parents were paid while staying home to care for their newborns, in especially parents of color and those in low-income jobs who cannot afford to take unpaid time off,” Hamad said.
According to the study authors, breastfeeding initiation for black and low-income families has dropped during the pandemic, suggesting less access to breastfeeding support during shelter-in-place orders.
The United States is the only high-income country without a national paid leave policy for new parents, the researchers noted. Only 25% of people working in the private sector have access to paid family leave.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends six months of exclusive breastfeeding.
President Joe Biden said in March 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 US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more to say about the benefits of breastfeeding for baby and mom.
SOURCE: University of California, San Francisco, press release, May 18, 2023