Why is pumping breastmilk in the workplace still such a dilemma?

Decades of research say breastfeeding benefits society at large. But too many American businesses continue to ignore the memo.

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I want to tell you about two women I know.

The first, my friend Patricia, was a personal trainer for her local YMCA when her two oldest children were still nursing. She fondly recalls the supportive atmosphere provided by the organization, and how she was able to both nurse and pump easily in the workplace because of various accommodations (including a large, designated nursing room)–along with many of the other new mothers who worked there.

My other friend, Meara, is a registered labor and delivery nurse. When Meara’s daughter was born, she was determined to pump at work. Sadly, the hospital environment was much less supportive than expected, leading to a number of embarrassing experiences for Meara, ultimately culminating in her inability to continue pumping at work. She recalls in particular the anonymous complaints made to supervisors about her pumping, covered, in the breakroom (the only available place for her to pump in relative private), and being forced to deliver a report to the oncoming (male) nurse in front of the patient in breastmilk-soaked scrubs after being made to miss her pumping break. And all of this happened in a place that many of us would have imagined as mother-friendly, family-first work atmosphere: a delivery ward.

Setting aside specific job titles, guess whose story is more common?

That’s right: Meara’s. Sadly, Patricia’s experience is not the norm for most women in the United States. In fact, it’s surprisingly rare. Because being a professional woman with a good job, and even reasonably good health benefits, often does not ensure the proper amount of time to breastfeed at home, or the ability to comfortably pump in the workplace, despite the fact that breastfeeding is an important, natural part of a child’s healthy development.

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In fact, the expert evidence for breastfeeding is clear and, frankly, pretty unanimous: The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and World Health Organization (WHO) have recommended that mothers exclusively breastfeed their infants for the first 6 months of a child’s life, with extended breastfeeding from 6 months to one year or longer. The well-established nutritional superiority of breastmilk over synthetic infant formula validates these same institutional recommendations, however, comparatively few American women exclusively breastfeed their children for the optimal duration of time. Excluding those women who are physically or medically unable to breastfeed (who should not be shamed or blamed for her inability to do so by anyone) there are still hundreds of thousands–perhaps millions–of American women who want to breastfeed their children, but because of workplace conditions and societal attitudes towards breastfeeding, are prevented from doing so.

Forbidden to pump at work, she was forced to clock out and walk 15 minutes to the local library to pump there instead.”

And, often, it’s mothers who truly need to work to support their families who are affected the most by these policies, because many low-income mothers experience even less flexibility in workplace policies than my friend Meara, or other women with middle to high income jobs. (A factor that may contribute to the historic disparity in the American breastfeeding rate between mothers of high and low socioeconomic status.)

Consider this third story from a new mother, who, though I don’t know her personally, was in the news a few years ago for this very issue. In the infamous 2012 Labor Department investigation of McDonald’s, a woman was forced to pump in the restaurant’s bathroom for lack of a better option. But eventually her manager forbade her from pumping anywhere in the restaurant, forcing her to clock out and walk 15 minutes to the local library to pump there instead. That walk to the library isn’t just an inconvenience, it’s an injustice. Because the fact that low income families are often less able to breastfeed due to inflexible job environments may be contributing to long-term disparities in the health of both mothers and children, with far-reaching implications for success and wellness later in life.

Of course, some companies and workplaces do better than others at offering breastfeeding support for new mothers. While McDonald’s may not sound so great in light of that incident in 2012, other large businesses are making improvements: American Express, IBM, Netflix, and Target have all made headlines for implementing breastfeeding-friendly policies that either allow new mothers more time off so they may stay home and breastfeed, or make it easier for working mothers to pump milk at home and on the road. But mostly, these are the exception to the rule, rather than the standard.

While the Affordable Care Act introduced new regulations intended to help all new mothers breastfeed their children, we still have a long way to go before every mother feels empowered and supported in her decision to breastfeed. Together, we must build a breastfeeding-friendly society, where mothers can feel comfortable feeding their children anywhere. Promoting a healthier, less sexualized view of the breast would certainly be a good start.

With all of the benefits for mother and baby that come with breastfeeding, our society would do well to encourage policies in the workplaces and in public spaces that make breastfeeding and pumping a more feasible option for all mothers–stay-at-home and working alike. So let’s start talking about it, to our employers and to our political representatives. Because this is one memo that businesses both big and small should not be able to ignore.

Grace Stark
Grace Stark
Grace is a freelance writer with a specialty in bioethics whose work has been featured on the Public Discourse, Aleteia, the Daily Signal, the Federalist, RedState, and the Marianas Business Journal. In her free time, Grace enjoys cooking, baking, teaching her friends' kids to swim, and (happy) crying over news stories featuring old people who have been married for forever. She and her husband are both certified Natural Family Planning instructors who live on Guam, and they are currently expecting their first child in March 2017.

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