July 31, 1997
Writer: Cathy Keen
Source: Teresa Smith, (910) 777-3957
GAINESVILLE --- Women who return to the workplace after having babies are just as likely to breast-feed as their counterparts who stay home, a new University of Florida study finds.
"Women who make it a priority to pursue careers in addition to motherhood are often well-educated, and we know that breast-feeding rates go up with higher education levels," said Teresa Smith, who did the research for her doctoral dissertation in sociology at UF.
Smith asked 150 mothers who had just given birth at Forsyth Memorial Hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C., whether they planned to breast-feed or bottle-feed their infants. Sixty- one percent of the women expecting to work full time in the next few months intended to breast-feed, compared with 50 percent of those returning part time and 54 percent of those staying home.
Breast-feeding rates were even higher for women who were the family's primary breadwinner or who shared this role with their husbands or partners. Seventy-eight percent of these mothers breast-fed, the study found.
"Women with careers that allow them to be the primary earners in a household are probably especially well-educated and likely to have careers as opposed to jobs," she said.
World Breast-Feeding Week is Aug. 1-7.
Until now, little has been known how labor force participation affects breast-feeding, Smith said.
"The lack of studies is surprising, considering that the recent dramatic increase in the number of mothers of small children in the work force has coincided with a decline in breast-feeding rates," she said.
From a post-World War II low of less than 20 percent, the proportion of breast-feeding women in the United States rose dramatically between 1960 and the mid 80s to 60 percent of all mothers being discharged from the hospital, Smith said. However, by 1989, the share had dropped to 52 percent, she said.
The UF study found women most likely to breast-feed were white, older, better educated and married or living with a partner. Women whose mothers supported breast-feeding chose that method 97 percent of the time, and women whose husbands or partners approved chose breast-feeding 84 percent of the time, Smith said.
"Interestingly, living with a partner made a big difference," she said. "Women who were married or living with a man were much more likely to breast-feed than single women, even if the single woman had a partner. In fact, women who lived with their partners were more than twice as likely to breast-feed as those not living with a partner.
Three-quarters of the women who selected breast-feeding gave their baby's health as the primary reason, while bottle-feeding mothers citied the convenience, Smith said.
"With the benefits of breast-feeding so well-known, I wondered why women would choose a method that is second-best," she said. "I couldn't help but question whether our cultural views of the breast as primarily a sexual organ to fulfill men's pleasure are a factor."
Women who have been strongly socialized to value breast-feeding, particularly if they were breast-fed themselves, would probably be less likely to see the breast as exclusively male territory and would be less likely to seek male permission to use their breasts to nourish a child, she said.
Research has shown that human milk contains the best mix of proteins, lipids and other nutrients for developing infants, Smith said. Studies find that breast-fed infants have lower mortality rates, fewer ear infections and allergies and less gastro-intestinal illness than bottle-fed babies, she said.
Smith would like to see breast-feeding promoted in public education campaigns, much like those for childhood immunizations and use of child safety seats in cars. But, she said, prospective parents interested in breast-feeding should learn about its value well before the mother gives birth. In the UF study, more than one-third of the mothers who chose breast-feeding made the decision before they became pregnant.