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Aunchalee Palmquist Co-Authors Breastfeeding Brief for UNICEF on Family-Friendly Work Policies

October 11, 2019
Gillings School of Global Public Health

A researcher from the Carolina Global Breastfeeding Institute at the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health contributed to a new report from the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) that calls on governments and businesses to invest in family-friendly policies such as paid leave, support for breastfeeding mothers, affordable childcare and the inclusion of child benefits.

The July 2019 report, “Family-Friendly Policies: A Policy Brief Redesigning the Workplace of the Future,” includes six evidence-based briefs on breastfeeding, business, child benefits, childcare and working families, paid parental leave and women’s economic empowerment to illustrate the importance of family-friendly policies to early childhood development.

Aunchalee Palmquist, assistant professor of maternal and child health, co-authored the section titled, “Breastfeeding and Family-Friendly Policies: An evidence brief.”

“The report ties together the importance of breastfeeding in early childhood development and calls for greater investment of governments and businesses in family-friendly workplace policies that include support for breastfeeding,” says Palmquist.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that infants be exclusively breastfed for six months and, along with the addition of solid food, continue to breastfeed for up to two years or more. The brief provides evidence from early childhood development and breastfeeding experts showing how policies that support breastfeeding can help children reach their full potential.

The report states: “A robust body of evidence highlights the importance of breastfeeding for the optimal health and long-term well-being of women and children worldwide. Children who are breastfed have reduced risk of acute and chronic illness and improved cognitive outcomes, resulting in higher educational achievement and earning potential compared with non-breastfed children.”

According to Palmquist, the estimated return on investment in breastfeeding support is $35 for every $1 invested.

“When paid parental leave is granted and employees are provided with lactation support and childcare support, employers retain a healthier and more satisfied workforce,” she says.

The report recommends governments and employers adopt legislation and workplace policies that protect, promote and support breastfeeding, including offering at least 14 to 18 weeks—and ideally 26 weeks — of paid leave around childbirth and providing paid breaks for breastfeeding or expressing breast milk for a length of time determined to be adequate by the parent.

Family-friendly policies that support breastfeeding must extend beyond time and space for expressing milk, Palmquist says, and are a long-term investment in the health and well-being of families, society and women’s economic empowerment and economic growth.

“Such a narrow focus on milk production misses the mark in terms of giving parents and infants the kind of support they need for their health and well-being,” she explains. “A return to work shortly after giving birth is the biggest barrier to exclusive breastfeeding in an infant’s first six months of life. This is true in the United States, which ranks among the worst countries in the world in terms of its family leave policies.”

Healthy societies begin with healthy families, she says, but even in the U.S., we are falling short.

“We have a maternity care crisis in this country that is exacerbated by the blatant lack of family-friendly policies postpartum and upon the return to work,” Palmquist adds.

She and others hope that this report, which provides the latest state of the science, will empower employers, legislators, governments and civil society organizations to provide new parents with the structural support they need to achieve health and well-being.

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