Incarcerated women need better lactation support policies

The US has the largest population of incarcerated women in the world, with women of childbearing age accounting for roughly 75% of all women who are imprisoned. We know there are postpartum women in prisons and jails. Ensuring they can breastfeed or pump is a matter of health equity and justice. However, little is known about institutional policies and services around lactation among women experiencing incarceration. Understanding these current practices is critical to ensuring incarcerated women’s healthcare needs are met.

Ifeyinwa Asiodu and colleagues surveyed 22 state prison systems and 6 county jails to assess the existence of policies and practices that allow incarcerated women to breastfeed while in custody. Researchers found that, though some prisons and jails allow postpartum women to provide human milk for their infants, few incarcerated women actually do so. Even when women experiencing incarceration are permitted to have visitation with their infants, they may not be supported to breastfeed or provide pumped milk.

Although policies in support of lactation existed, several front-line staff were unaware of them. The lack of awareness may contribute to stopping breastfeeding or pumping early, perpetuate the limited support and resources available and highlight potential bias. The inconsistent ability for incarcerated women to breastfeed or pump milk is in direct conflict with national breastfeeding recommendations. These challenges can further perpetuate maternal and infant health disparities.

Short of alternatives to incarceration, practices such as providing doula support may help promote breastfeeding and pumping. Contact visits, nursery programs and accommodations for pumping milk can all help get human milk to infants. Supporting lactation and breastfeeding among incarcerated women is an important part of a broader agenda to address deep inequities in maternal and infant health, which disproportionately affect Black women and infants.