Better World

Physicians Propose Plan for Supporting Breastfeeding Moms at Work

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Expectant working mothers have a lot on their minds, from maternity leave to child care

If they’re planning to breastfeed and will be working through feeding times, they also have to consider the challenges of expressing milk at work.

Pumping breastmilk at regular intervals while away from their babies is an essential part of breastfeeding for any nursing mother. It’s critical for sustaining milk supply at the appropriate level, avoiding mastitis (an infection of the milk ducts), not to mention being necessary for the mother’s physical comfort. Unfortunately, providing mothers the opportunity to do so is not something that comes easily to some employers, even though they’re legally required to do so.

Mothers often face many challenges when they need to pump breastmilk at work.

The stories of hardships mothers face when trying to pump in the workplace are jaw dropping. In a Huffington Post article on breastfeeding and the workplace, women shared their horror stories. From having to empty their breast milk into a toilet to having to pump behind a bread shelf in a restaurant kitchen, tales of unsanitary or unsafe conditions, lack of time or privacy, and other issues interfering with the ability to pump abound. The Orange County Board of Supervisors in California proposed legislation this month, requiring county facilities to provide lactation accommodations after reports emerged of women pumping milk in cars and storage closets.

Robyn Welling, mother of five and Director of Content at ParentsTogether, remembers her experience expressing milk at a previous job. “The room I was allowed to use was in a construction area, and there was no lock on the door. More than once, men in hard hats would barge in unexpectedly while I was largely undressed from the waist up. It was…unprofessional, to say the least.” 

The Huffington Post review of 376 investigations into unfair work policies uncovered three main difficulties women face when trying to pump in the workplace.

Lack of time. 

Many women reported that they were either not given enough time to pump or were not allowed to pump with enough frequency to keep up their milk supply. If both of these needs are not honored, a mother’s milk supply can quickly dwindle or they may develop painful infections like mastitis.

Lack of space.

A dedicated place for pumping, equipped with basic things like an electric outlet and sanitary conditions, is a must. Many women reported they were told to pump in bathrooms or cramped spaces without enough room to comfortably pump breast milk.

Lack of privacy.

No woman should feel like her breasts are on display while providing food for her baby. Employers who are not giving women a space free of interruption or foot traffic are not giving employees a chance to pump at all.

Even doctors who are mothers feel these strains—so four of them decided to address the problem.

A group of female physicians at the University of Michigan came together to research  how best to support their fellow physicians in breastfeeding when they return to work. Megan Pesch MD, a developmental pediatrician and mother of three, was one of four authors of the study. “As pediatricians, we are educated on the importance of breastfeeding, and many of us work hard to support mothers in achieving their breastfeeding goals,” she said. “Ironically, the same doctors who so vigorously provide this support to patients face significant obstacles to meeting breastfeeding goals with their own babies.”

Their study found that “Less than one-third of physician mothers are able to reach their personal breastfeeding goal, with more than one-half stating that they would have breastfed longer if their ‘job had been more supportive.’” If women who fully realize the health benefits of breastfeeding are unable to pump at work for their own babies, then changes need to be made.

Lactation policies should have four key components.

The four physicians conducting the study determined that, in order for a workplace to fully support a breastfeeding mother, lactation policies should include:

  • A clean, private space to express breast milk
  • Special blocks of time designated for expressing breast milk
  • A dedicated place to store breast milk
  • Open culture of communication around lactation

Dr. Pesch offers, “A workplace culture of support for breastfeeding should empower physician mothers to take the time they need to meet breastfeeding goals.” These are the same goals shared by all working mothers, and the proposed key elements of a supportive lactation policy would positively impact moms in every profession.

If hospitals can take the lead on creating an accommodating and supportive environment for breastfeeding women, hopefully employers everywhere can follow suit. It’s the least they can do for women who are trying their best to feed the workforce of tomorrow.

Jessica Watson is a freelance writer, author and the blogger behind Four Plus an Angel. Mom to five kids, four in her arms and one in her heart, she tries hard to enjoy them every moment but sometimes dreams of a week alone with a pile of her favorite books. "Four Plus an Angel" -