How insurers can help new moms resolve breastfeeding challenges

Having a baby can be the happiest time in a woman's life. Those wonderful newborn eyes are just beaming with love as they look at their new mom for the first time. Their little tiny fingers grip their mother's hands almost unaware that they're two separate beings. They simply love--unconditionally and whole-heartedly. It's amazingly precious.

But this also can be the worst of times for mothers, particularly if they struggle to breastfeed their new baby and can't find adequate help. I've seen it happen myself as several friends have fought to create or maintain a breastfeeding relationship with their little ones.

In one case, my friend's baby couldn't latch, leaving the sweet little newborn to get very little nourishment and lose weight. Obviously, my friend was distraught about her daughter's inability to thrive in the first few days and she sought out every form of assistance she could get her hands on. But do you know how much that cost her? Several hundred dollars.

Between phone consults and in-person visits with lactation consultants, rental fees for hospital-grade breast pump and self-help books on breastfeeding, the costs add up very quickly.

And that's only the financial side of the situation. There's also the added stress, uncertainty and anxiety the new mom typically addresses--all while quite sleep deprived and exhausted from the delivery.

I recognize these aren't commonly discussed problems. I certainly had no idea how challenging breastfeeding could be until my peers and I started having our own children. But it's an extremely important issue that impacts our entire culture, not only the women and children who have difficulty with breastfeeding.

The fact is breastfed children are healthier and have stronger immune systems, so they get sick less often and don't spread germs to other children and their parents. Mothers' milk contains needed protein, sugar and fat as well as goodies like antibodies, enzymes and white blood cells. That means breastfed babies are less likely to have ear infections, diarrhea, vomiting, pneumonia and urinary tract infections. Breastfeeding also helps prevent against obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions in older children and adults.

And that's where the healthcare reform law comes in. In a little known provision of the law, insurers are required to provide many breastfeeding-related services--including breast pumps and lactation consults--free of charge to their members. That may not mean much to someone who doesn't have children, never had any breastfeeding complications or who choose to formula feed, but you tell that news to an emotionally drained and physically fatigued new mom, and I guarantee you'll see her literally jumping for joy.

The problem, however, is most insurers' coverage of lactation services isn't exactly up to snuff. Or, to put it much less mildly: "It's abysmal, the state of lactation services being provided by insurance companies currently," says Susanne Madden, a founder of the National Breastfeeding Center.

So far, insurers have had varying interpretations of the law's breastfeeding provision, which doesn't specify whether they must cover certain breast pump brands or types. It simply states, for example, that insurers must pay for the costs of renting breastfeeding equipment after a baby's birth.

But the bigger concern with this provision is so few people--particularly women--know about its existence. I've told every female friend I have about insurers' requirement to cover breast pumps and lactation consultants, but I somehow doubt my personal education efforts will have a dramatic ripple effect throughout the country on this matter.

That's why I'm hoping insurers themselves will start outreach efforts regarding the importance and the challenges of breastfeeding. They would save money in the long run if more members breastfeed their children because future adult members will be healthier and less plagued with costly chronic conditions.

So let's have more best of times and fewer worst of times for all the new moms who want to breastfeed but run into some snafus along the way. - Dina (@HealthPayer)

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