By Sally Greenberg, NCL Executive Director Since our founding in 1899, the National Consumers League has worked hard to advocate for the better health of women and children. Florence Kelley, the League’s first leader, grew up in a family in which five of her mother’s eight children died from infection or disease. Babies during that time – the period right after the Civil War - were relatively safe while breastfeeding. Once weaned, they were exposed to illness from unsanitary food, water, and milk. Today, though we pasteurize milk and have access to safe drinking water, breastfeeding remains the best option for babies and their mothers, at least for the first 6 months of a child’s life. That is why NCL was disturbed to read about an Internal Revenue Service decision that denies nursing mothers the ability to use their tax-sheltered health care accounts to pay for breast pumps and other breastfeeding supplies. NCL has written to the IRS to ask that the agency reverse its decision. According to IRS Publication 502, reimbursable items include those that aid in the “prevention of disease.” The IRS apparently has determined that breast-feeding does not help in the prevention of disease. NCL could not disagree more. Medical evidence that far more widespread breastfeeding would not only “prevent disease” in the United States, but would save our health care system billions of dollars is overwhelming. Consider the following evidence about the myriad health benefits to both breastfeeding mother and child:
- According to a Harvard study published in April of this year, if 90 percent of American families would comply with medical recommendationsto breastfeed exclusively for 6 months, the United States wouldsave $13 billion per year and prevent an excess 911 deaths,nearly all of which would be among infants ($10.5 billion and 741deaths at 80 percent compliance).
- The risk of infant death due to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS) is lowered, and respiratory infections such as pneumonia, and necrotizing enterocolitis is nearly eliminated if mothers breastfeed their infants until at least six months after birth.
- The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has found that breastfed infants have a lower risk of contracting ear infections, stomach viruses, atopic dermatitis, type 1 and 2 diabetes, childhood leukemia, and other health problems.
- Mothers also benefit from breastfeeding because of lower risk of contracting type 2 diabetes, breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and postpartum depression (PPD).
- Breastfed infants typically need fewer sick care visits; Congress recently acknowledged the importance of breastfeeding in landmark health care reform legislation by requiring that workplaces provide women with a private place to nurse or use a breast pump.