On Thursday of last week, the IRS reversed a long-held position and announced that breast pumps and other supplies for breastfeeding are now tax deductible as medical expenses. Families can now use pre-tax funds from flexible spending accounts and health savings accounts for these supplies, which could add up to considerable savings for new mothers starting a family.

As Reuters reports:

“Breast pumps typically cost more than $200 and, along with supplies, can run as high as $1,000 in the first year of a baby’s life. Last year, the American Academy of Pediatrics asked the IRS to allow this deduction, but the agency initially denied that request.”

Since medical expenses are not deductible until they exceed 7.5 percent of adjusted gross income, allowing breast pumps and breastfeeding supplies to count as medical expenses will help mothers and fathers starting a family meet that 7.5 percent threshold to claim a tax deduction for their childbirth-related expenses. This is especially true given that most new mothers incur breastfeeding expenses in the same year that they incur other expenses related to pregnancy and childbirth.

This IRS announcement is significant for three reasons. First, as noted above, it will contribute to financial savings for mothers and fathers starting a family.

Second, it brings the tax code in-line with a more coherent approach to public health policy. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Office of the Surgeon General have recognized the important benefits of breastfeeding to maternal and infant health, and as such have supported breastfeeding as a public health goal. This commitment to breastfeeding was emphasized in the Department of Health and Human Service’s “Blueprint for Action on Breastfeeding,” published in 2000, and was reiterated by Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin in her “Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding,” issued last month on January 20.

The Surgeon General’s “Call to Action” encourages a community-wide approach to support breastfeeding to improve public health, and calls for the removal of barriers to breastfeeding by creating supportive environments for nursing mothers within families, communities, the health care profession and within the business community. As the Surgeon General said:

“Many barriers exist for mothers who want to breastfeed…They shouldn’t have to go it alone. Whether you’re a clinician, a family member, a friend, or an employer, you can play an important part in helping mothers who want to breastfeed.”

This highlights the third reason the IRS announcement is significant. As breast pumps are used by nursing mothers to pump milk at work, the announcement will make breast pumps more affordable and may help overcome some of the challenges faced by mothers who want to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. Hourly and low-wage workers often face considerable challenges  doing so, including a lack of a private and sanitary place to pump milk, lack of flexible scheduling for pumping breaks and a lack of support from managers and colleagues. In fact, 77 percent of mothers in retail or low-wage jobs give up breastfeeding after returning to work. Efforts to support nursing mothers at work, especially those in hourly positions, therefore play a positive role in meeting public health goals, and in promoting the financial and economic stability of low-wage workers.

Corporate Voices for Working Families also believes that there is a business imperative for breastfeeding and workplace lactation support. Employers that provide time and space for mothers to pump milk at work are embracing a progressive management strategy that will enhance their bottom line. Research has shown that lactation programs help to improve employer recruitment and retention, and reduce absences due to baby sick days and health care costs. Businesses with lactation programs have reported returns of $3 for every $1 invested in breastfeeding support.

While the IRS breast pump announcement is encouraging, Corporate Voices recognizes that there is still much to be done to make tools and resources available to employers to help them implement successful lactation programs to support their working, nursing mothers.

In fact, making high-quality, practical tools, like Corporate Voices’ workplace lactation toolkit widely available to the business community will be another critical step in helping to remove barriers to breastfeeding for many mothers. Tools like these will help employers comply with new federal law, encourage economic self-sufficiency among working families and will help employers adopt progressive management strategies for 21st century success.