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Soc Sci Med. 2003 Jul;57(1):167-77.

The impact on breastfeeding of labour market policy and practice in Ireland, Sweden, and the USA.

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Cornell Employment and Family Careers Institute, Cornell University, MVR Hall, Ithaca, NY 14850, USA. <>


In recent decades there has been a marked rise in the labour market participation of women with infants in many countries. Partly in response to this trend, there are calls for greater emphasis on infant and child health in research and policy development on parental leave and other work-family balancing measures. Yet achieving high rates of breastfeeding as a health objective has thus far received relatively little attention in this context. Biomedical literature outlines the important health benefits conferred by breastfeeding, including upon infants and young children among middle class populations in developed countries. International recommendations now advise exclusive breastfeeding for 6 months. However, research indicates that the timing of the mother's resumption of employment is a key factor influencing the duration of exclusive breastfeeding. There would thus appear to be considerable potential for labour policy and practice, particularly maternity/parental leave provisions, to positively influence breastfeeding practice. Taking the case studies of Ireland, Sweden, and the United States, this paper explores the implications of labour market and early childhood policy for breastfeeding practice. The equity tensions posed by the breastfeeding-maternal employment intersection are also examined. The paper concludes that both socio-cultural support and labour market/health/early childhood policy are important if high rates of both breastfeeding and women's employment are to be achieved in industrialised countries.

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