Centering Maternal and Infant Health in the Workplace

In a radio interview, DGHI's Aunchalee Palmquist says a lack of paid maternal leave forces many mothers to give up on breastfeeding, and that's bad for mothers and babies.

Aunchalee Palmquist

Aunchalee Palmquist, an associate professor of the practice of global health, studies breastfeeding and lactation.

Published May 2, 2024 under Commentary

In the U.S., relatively few employers offer long-term paid maternal leave, which creates a challenge for mothers who want to breastfeed their infants. And that, says DGHI associate professor Aunchalee Palmquist, Ph.D., needs to change. 

Palmquist, a medical anthropologist who studies breastfeeding and lactation, discussed the structural barriers that force many women to abandon breastfeeding during an April 21 episode of “Conversations on Health Care,” a program co-hosted by DGHI professor Gavin Yamey, M.D., on Duke’s radio station, WXDU. 

Without paid leave, many women have no choice but to return to work to afford food and health coverage. But continuing breastfeeding while working can be complicated, forcing many mothers to switch. 

“[Because of] these circumstances, it’s impossible to establish and sustain lactation and breastfeeding as recommended,” Palmquist said during the interview. “This policy failure is one of the primary reasons why breastfeeding is so poor in this country.”

Palmquist advocated for longer paid maternal leave as one of the policy changes that could help more women continue to breastfeed their babies, which she noted is critical to infant health and providing natural immunity to diseases. She also urged a stronger voice for women and a greater emphasis on maternal and infant health in shaping workplace policies.

“Any situation where women’s health, well-being or rights are at stake, women should be at the table and leading those changes,” she said. “You want to listen to the people who are closest to the problem.” 

At Duke, Palmquist recently was awarded a university fellowship to  incorporate climate and sustainability into her teaching. She is revamping a course on global maternal and child health to include a focus on the impact of climate change on mothers and children. 

“I think about participating in a legacy of women from all over the world who have been doing this for a long time,” she said during the radio interview. “This is what keeps me going, knowing in some small way, the teaching I do moves us toward a place centering maternal and child health.” 

Palmquist appeared on the fourth episode of Conversations on Health Care, which Yamey co-hosts with Duke students Daniel Robelo, who’s majoring in neuroscience and philosophy, and Gareth Kelleher, a Class of 2024 graduate with a double major in biology and global health. Each episode of the radio program features a pre-recorded syndicated interview with a national health expert, followed by a live in-studio interview with a guest from the Triangle.