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The Daily Need

Want to lose weight fast? Try breastfeeding!

Want to lose weight fast?

A new advertisement promotes breastfeeding as a way to drop a few jeans sizes.

The benefits of breastfeeding — including higher IQs, lower rates of infection, and reduced risk of obesity and heart disease later in life for the child, as well as reduced risk of breast cancer, and yes, accelerated postpartum weight loss for the mother — are well documented. And government efforts to promote breastfeeding are nothing new: In 1978, the U.S. government set the goal of increasing “to at least 75 percent the proportion of mothers who exclusively or partially breastfeed their babies in the early postpartum period and to at least 50 percent the proportion who continue to breastfeed until their babies are 5 to 6 months old.”

The jean-size ad is a great attention grabber, and the immediacy and tangibility of postpartum weight loss might be more convincing to some than the abstract promise of higher IQs and lower rates of heart disease later in the baby’s life. The ad is part of a $1.6 million, two-month campaign sponsored by the New York State Department of Health and targeted at lower-income women, who, according to the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are less likely to breastfeed than other mothers. (Though culture might play a bigger role than income: Latina women, with roots in countries where breastfeeding is more prevalent, are actually the most likely to breastfeed, while African-American women, for a complex set of reasons including a history of black domestic servants serving as wet nurses and a lingering perception of formula as a sign of prestige, are the least). The campaign also includes spots about the health benefits of breastfeeding.

Educational campaigns like this one seem to be helping. According to the most recent CDC data, 75 percent of American women now initiate breastfeeding, equaling the goal set back in 1978. But the number of mothers who are still exclusively breastfeeding after six months is staggeringly low and stagnant, hovering at around 10 percent.

As a new working mom, I suspect I know why.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of life, and in combination with other foods until their first birthday. But under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), women are guaranteed only 12 weeks off from work after the birth of a child, unpaid. Paid maternity leave is simply a benefit that some companies offer, not a right like it is in almost every other industrialized country (the one exception is Australia, where the mandated maternity leave is unpaid but lasts a full year as opposed to 12 weeks).

This means that if a new mother follows all the rules set forth by the powers that be, she’ll be pumping breast milk at work for up to nine months. As anyone who has tried it knows, this is not a reasonable proposition. Pumping is physically uncomfortable and incredibly time consuming. The new heath care bill stipulates that employers must provide a private space other than a bathroom for new mothers to pump milk, but that only applies to companies with 50 employees or more, and isn’t always practical. What if you’re a bus driver, or a real estate agent?

The company that I work for provides a decent space, which I refer to as “the lactation lounge,” but as a journalist, I’m not always in the office. In the months since I’ve been back at work I’ve pumped milk for my son 1) behind the wheel of a car on the way back from a shoot in Albany — with my intern in the passenger’s seat, 2) in the bathroom at the Metropolitan Club during an event associated with the U.N. General Assembly, while female dignitaries fixed their hair and make-up on the other side of the stall door, 3) in a room without a lock on the door somewhere in upstate New York — and yes, someone walked in — an elderly man who quickly averted his eyes and slammed the door behind himself. These incidents may sound funny now, but they were deeply awkward experiences, and everyone I know who has pumped on the job has had them. A friend from college, now a teacher, used to pump milk in a broom closet adjacent to the school library and had more than one elementary school student walk in on her.

This started out as a post about a funny television commercial and seems to have turned into an argument for longer maternity leave and against pumping. I’m not sure that’s what I meant to do. There are certainly other possible solutions, such as flexible work hours, on-site daycare centers where employees can visit their babies during the day, and more public “lactation lounges” (I actually found a designated lactation room next to the handicapped bathroom at a mall in Queens recently, but that’s the only place I’ve ever seen such a thing). But there’s one thing I’m sure of: our society is not set up to support breastfeeding, and until that changes, no brilliant advertising or educational campaign is going to solve the problem.