Prematurity, breastfeeding, and work: Making it work

National Breastfeeding Month 2015

By Naomi Bar-Yam, Ph.D., Executive Director

In honor of Mother’s Day this year, John Oliver (Last Week Tonight) ran a segment on the frankly embarrassing lack of paid maternity and parental leave in the US. We met there Salina Allen whose son was born six weeks premature. She could only afford one month of maternity leave.

We decided the best thing we could do was spend the one month with Carl when he was home with us. I gave birth on a Wednesday and on Monday I went back to work. It was like a piece of me got left in that hospital, and now I had to pretend that I’m OK.

In our work providing donor milk to premature babies, Mothers’ Milk Bank Northeast and the 17 other HMBANA milk banks, we talk frequently with mothers whose babies are born 10 or 12 weeks early and who will spend several months in the NICU. Too often these families face the wrenching and untenable decision about whether and when to return to work while their baby is cared for in the NICU so that she can take her (usually unpaid) maternity leave when the baby is home. Often this is further complicated by mothers’ need to be on bed rest for weeks before the birth to prevent the baby coming even earlier.

The need to return to work adds stress to an already very difficult situation. It also often compromises mothers’ milk supply, their ability to recover from labor, which is a C-Section one third of the time, and to focus on their babies (or their work).

My ex-24 weeker was born three years ago. I went back to work full time four and a half weeks after my classical c-section. I made the decision to go back to work really early because I wanted to save my time for when she came home from the NICU. When she came home, I took the remaining of my FMLA, which was another six weeks and then went back full time again.

The US is just now beginning to address paid maternity leave. The conversation should be open, vocal and, hopefully, fruitful as we navigate the best way to protect and support new families and work places alike. There are numerous models from several US states (California, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Connecticut and Massachusetts) and corporations (Ernst and Young, Google, Yahoo, Facebook, Bank of America, and others), the UN’s International Labor Organization, and governments all over the world, to inform our policies.

More than 11 percent of babies in the US are born too early. Now is the time to assure that the conversation and resulting policies about paid parental leave include accommodation for high-risk pregnancies and preterm births. We need to call upon the expertise of human resources professionals, health care providers, breastfeeding experts and, crucially, parents of premature babies.

Are you a preemie mom or dad? Please add your voice and your story by emailing our Director of Community Relations.