WASHINGTON -- New mothers and advocates of breast-feeding are finding support from an unusual corner these days: corporate boardrooms.
Across the country, companies recognized for their progressive employee benefits are adding lactation programs to their rosters. This week, for example, Cigna Corp., a Philadelphia-based insurance giant, will introduce a lactation program at its offices in Columbia, Md., as part of its plan to take the program nationwide.
Cigna will provide new mothers with visits from lactation experts, private rooms for expressing milk at work, use of free hospital-grade breast pumps, and breast-feeding kits and literature. It also will subsidize the cost of breast pumps for employees who want to rent or buy them.
Cigna, whose work force is 70 percent female, joins other firms federal agencies that are taking steps to encourage their working mothers to breast-feed their infants. The employers hope that these actions will help reduce absenteeism among new mothers - both in sick days for them and their infants - and keep working mothers on the payroll.
"It's a dollars-and-cents issue for companies trying to lower their health care costs," said lactation consultant Jane Balkam, owner of Bethesda, Md.-based Babies 'n' Business, which works with seven area companies and their employees.
According to a 1995 study of women workers and their newborns by the University of California at Los Angeles, breast-fed infants were 36 percent healthier than formula-fed babies, which reduced the mother's absenteeism by 27 percent. The study found that mothers of formula-fed babies missed a day's work because their babies were ill three times more often than breast-fed babies.
"There's a soft-and-fuzzy benefit, too," said Jim Hughes, a sales representative for Sanvita, a subsidiary of Illinois-based breast-pump manufacturer Medela Inc. that markets breast pumps and lactation consultation to corporate human resources departments. "You are viewed as a family-friendly company."
But the topic still raises many a quizzical eyebrow, particularly among older male executives. Hughes recalled that when he first began making sales calls to human resources executives three years ago to tout the benefits of corporate-sponsored breast-feeding programs, his queries about lactation services drew a puzzled response.
" `Lactation service?' they would say. `No, we already have a relocation service,' " Hughes recalled with a laugh.
The executives' surprise is not surprising: Nationally, only 10 percent of employed mothers continue to breast-feed their children for the first six months of their lives, as pediatricians recommend.