A breastfeeding room of one's own

A nifty provision in the healthcare bill is a boon to working moms

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published April 13, 2010 3:14PM (EDT)

Thank you, page 1239! Deep within the new health care bill, right before the part where the Rostovs flee Moscow, there's a neat provision that will thrill working mothers. CNN notes this week that companies with 50 or more employees are now required to provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk." 

Why is this a big deal? Well, if you've ever been in a public bathroom, it should come as no surprise that nursing moms rarely respond with a big whoop when anybody suggests they just hustle their breasts to the nearest toilet.

The idea that nursing mothers need to be "shielded from view" may strike breastfeeding advocates as unnecessarily modest. But the win here isn't for prudishness; it's for simple comfort. Nursing a baby at the local latte joint or on a bench at the playground is easy peasy, because those are friendly, relaxed environments. Strapping on the Medela Freestyle while you're at your desk on a conference call or under the harsh restroom lights making small talk with Julie from accounting – that's no picnic. Is it any wonder that breastfeeding rates drop off when women return to work?

Coming close to the release of yet another study showing the life- and money-saving benefits of breastfeeding, the provision is a welcome one. It'd be nice, then, if CNN didn't feel the need to give lip service to the notion that "some view the enthusiasm for breastfeeding as hysteria" because "the pressure to breastfeed is still tremendous."

Only half of all American businesses already offer some space for nursing mothers -- and it's doubtful the new law will get the rest scrambling to provide them ASAP. Less than three quarters of all babies in the United States are ever breastfeed, and only 22.7 percent of them are still nursing after one year. Page 1239 likely won't create a mania for lactation. But it may encourage more working women to keep nursing and keep doing it longer. And that's healthcare reform we can all get behind.

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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