By March of this year, over eight million Americans had enrolled in health insurance plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). These plans bring a host of new benefits for women, including federal regulations that make it easier for women to breastfeed. The ACA requires that health insurance plans cover breastfeeding supplies, counseling, and support and that employers provide nursing mothers with reasonable break times and a private place to breastfeed.
These requirements are important because breastfeeding has many benefits for both moms and babies. Research suggests that babies who are breastfed may have lower rates of obesity, diabetes, asthma, and ear infections. Mothers who breastfeed their children may be at a lower risk for cancer and save money by not buying baby formula, which can cost about $1,500 per year. Breastfeeding may also help women lose weight gained during pregnancy.
Despite these benefits, only 38 percent of women in Virginia are still exclusively breastfeeding when their baby is three months old. As Chair of the Breastfeeding Promotion Committee of the Alexandria Childhood Obesity Action Network (A-COAN), I’ve seen this in our outreach to the Alexandria community. Many women don’t know the benefits of breastfeeding and may face obstacles, such as social stigma and employers that have yet to comply with the ACA’s regulations.
In response to this, the Breastfeeding Promotion Committee is working to support and promote breastfeeding by engaging businesses, local leaders, and community members. We’ve reached out to local businesses to inform them about the requirements for employers indicated in the ACA, distributed educational materials at the Alexandra Community Health Fair, informed community members about the support for breastfeeding in the ACA for employees, and promoted lactation rooms available to city employees. Our efforts began in 2011, when we successfully advocated before the Alexandria City Council, which helped lead to passage of a resolution that amended the indecent exposure provision of the City code that excluded breastfeeding. It also ensured that women are allowed to breastfeed on public property and encouraged business to adopt breastfeeding-friendly policies.
Going forward, we’re excited to continue working with businesses to explain how supporting breastfeeding is not only good for mothers and babies, but also makes good business sense. For example, last May we organized a community luncheon for local businesses with a focus on how to successfully implement a breastfeeding support program for employees so they can both comply with new laws in the ACA and improve their company’s return on investment (ROI): supporting breastfeeding helps them to save money on health care costs and lowers employee expenses. The event was free-of-charge and each attendee left with supplies to help establish or support a lactation room within their company.
We believe that other communities should make breastfeeding promotion a priority issue, not just because breastfeeding is so important, but also because making progress on this issue is entirely within their power. As we’ve shown in Alexandria, promoting breastfeeding is good for everyone.
Diana Karczmarczyk, PhD, MPH, MCHES, chaired the A-COAN Breastfeeding Promotion Committee in Alexandria until September 2014 and now serves as the A-COAN Chair. She is a Senior Analyst for Tobacco and Chronic Disease Prevention at the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials. Tricia Rodgers, Program Officer for the Northern Virginia Health Foundation, served as the Chair of A-COAN prior to Diana. This kind of community involvement is part of the Foundation’s commitment to going beyond grant-making to effect change.