Some Disappointing News on American Motherhood

By Heddi Nieuwsma

Every year, Save the Children releases a report on the state of the world’s mothers. Since Mother’s Day was just on Sunday, I wanted to share some findings from their most recent report, which ranks 165 countries for the best and worst places to be a mother based on health, education and economic conditions. This year’s report focuses on nutrition during a child’s first 1,000 days of life. While the United States jumped from #31 to #25 in 2012 among the world’s best countries to be a mother—and  we arguably have a very high quality of life here compared to many other nations—I found some very disappointing statistics on the state of American motherhood.

  • Among 36 industrialized countries, the United States ranked last, having “the least favorable environment” for breastfeeding mothers. Save the Children looked at maternity leave policies, laws regarding nursing breaks at work, among other indicators. I find this depressing, but not entirely surprising given that breastfeeding rates are so low. Furthermore, I think that media coverage, like Time’s recent cover photo showing an atypical nursing scenario, doesn’t really help to increase awareness or support for breastfeeding (no judgment here, if this works for them). In 2011, about 24 percent of mothers breastfed for an entire year, which I’ve written about before. Therefore, those making it to 3 years, as shown on this photo, comprise a small percentage of mothers. On its website, Time has also published what I consider a more important story and representative photo of a nursing mother, but apparently it’s not provocative enough for the cover.
  • The United States is the only developed country that doesn’t have any laws requiring some form of paid maternity leave. This report indicates that among developed nations, paid maternity leave can range from 12 to 46 weeks, and mothers during their leave receive pay ranging between 55 to 100 percent of their regular salary. Without federal policies for paid maternity leave in the United States, even if an employer allows new mothers to take a long unpaid leave, mothers may not be able to afford it. This lack of paid maternity leave also creates inequitable access among mothers who want to stay home and care for their new baby. Mothers who can afford unpaid leave have the opportunity to stay home. Mothers who can’t afford unpaid leave must return to work sooner and potentially before they’re ready.

    Plus, all this has a connection to breastfeeding. It’s easier to nurse your baby longer, if you’re home on a longer maternity leave. If longer maternity leaves encourage higher breastfeeding rates, and if mothers take longer maternity leaves when countries have paid maternity leave policies, then the solution seems obvious if we want to increase these rates (and there’s some data out there to back this up)

  • In terms of maternal mortality rates and mortality rates of children under 5 years of age, the United States also has disappointing results. Among developed countries, the United States has the highest maternal mortality rates—mothers face a 1 in 2,100 risk of death due to a pregnancy-related cause. For children under the age of 5, the mortality rate in the United States is worse than 40 other developed countries—8 per 1,000 births. Why isn’t THIS on the cover of Time?

Mothers and children in the United States have opportunities and access to education and health care far greater than mothers in those countries falling at the bottom of Save the Children’s list of rankings—Niger, Yemen and Afghanistan. While I’m encouraged to see the United States raising its position among the rankings, we still have a lot more to do, as shown by the disappointing findings highlighted above. Let’s all think of how we can help in our own neighborhoods, the Merrimack Valley and beyond to support mothers and children. Whether it’s writing your elected officials, donating time and money to a charity, or just giving a nursing mom a glass of water, there’s something you can do. We’ve got it good here, but it could be so much better.

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  1. Why isn’t THIS on the cover of Time?

    Because that would require actual reporting on the complicated subject of the interplay of race and class! If we talked about why and how poor women, women of color and women living in rural areas have worse pregnancy outcomes, then we might have to ask tough questions about systemic injustice. Time would rather just shock people with exploitative cover photos without having to provide substantive content.

    Thank *you* for writing about this though. It is so important and so many people do know know that we still face these problems in the USA.

    • Heddi

       /  May 23, 2012

      Elizabeth, thanks for your thoughtful comments. Yes, these data only tell part of the story. I’m glad you brought this up. Geography, race and income should be woven into the discussion of maternal mortality in the United States. It looks like Amnesty International has done some work in this area ( There was also a “No Mother’s Day” campaign sponsored by Every Mother Counts this year, but it seemed a little counterintuitive. Mothers were supposed to be silent on Mother’s Day in support of maternal health ( Hopefully it brought some attention to this issue, but I’m not sure how you can really spread the word by keeping quiet… Shouldn’t we all be making lots of noise??


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