From conversations with women around the country who have recently negotiated pumping in their workplaces, it seems that plenty of companies aren’t aware of, or don’t understand the value in, the steps that can make workplace lactation—and the return to work in general—easier for new mothers.
We can all agree that mothers breast-feeding their infant children is a completely good thing. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that babies be exclusively breast-fed for the first six months of their lives. The AAP also strongly suggests that breast milk (and not formula) should be a baby’s primary nutritional source for at least the next six months. The World Health Organization joins in the AAP recommendation that babies should be breast-fed for at least six months.
All the good things breast milk provides to mother and child
- Breast milk provides all the essential nutrition that a newborn needs. It also supplies antibodies to shield infants from infectious diseases.
- Breast-feeding reduces childhood obesity and the incidence of sudden infant death syndrome.
- Breast-feeding benefits nursing mothers as well. It reduces their risk of incurring type 2 diabetes, some sorts of breast cancer, and ovarian cancer.
- Breast-feeding also perpetuates and strengthens the bond between mother and child.
- Breast-fed children are mentally and emotionally healthier than babies who are prematurely switched to formula.
A new mother’s breast milk keeps on flowing no matter what
Her milk flow continues uninterrupted, whether she’s asleep or awake, at work or at home. She has an urgent physical need to express milk every three hours or so. A woman who’s away from her baby for an extended time has two requirements.
- First, to let the milk out.
- Second, to store that milk, so she can take it home to her infant.
That frequency eases up as the baby grows, but most working new mothers still need to pump at least twice during their workday. Fortunately, efficient breast pumps, both plug-in and battery-powered, are available, and they are covered under the Affordable Care Act (ACA).
But a job at a typical American place of work presents significant impediments to the provision of breast milk to an infant.
Why is it so hard for new mothers to pump breast milk at work?
Lack of maternity leave is the first stumbling block that most new mothers encounter in their quest to provide breast milk to their newborns. The United States joins Surinam and Papua New Guinea as the only three countries in the world that don’t mandate some form of paid maternity leave. (Really). This means that American women work later into their pregnancies and return to work sooner than most women in the rest of the world. Because paid maternity leave is not required in the United States, most American mothers are forced to cobble up some sort of substitute by splicing snippets of sick leave, vacation days, disability, and unpaid medical leave.
Once the new mother returns to work, there can be significant workplace barriers to expressing breast milk, storing it, and transporting it home to a waiting baby.
Pumping breast milk at work has been legally protected since the ACA passed in 2010
But a discouraging number of workplaces still lack appropriate facilities. One study found that only 40% of working new mothers have access to a private place to express breast milk, along with enough time to accomplish that task.
The basic requirements under the ACA are simple.
- Reasonable break time
- Comfortable seating
- Electrical outlets
However, many women work without break time, or they are paid by the hour. Under the ACA, pumping breaks don’t have to be paid. A new mother who’s the sole source of income for her family often can’t afford to lose payment for the hour (at least) required each day to express and sanitarily store breast milk.
To overcome legislative opposition to the lactation provisions of the ACA, those protections were made applicable only to hourly paid employees. The benefits do not extend to salaried workers, such as teachers. Overall, the impact of the ACA on lactation issues as been beneficial but improvements are still limited.
Discrimination towards new mothers at work makes some give up and switch to formula
This is the one lactation barrier that’s the most pervasive and the hardest to identify, isolate, and correct. Because of the discriminatory attitudes of employers, many new mothers give up and prematurely switch to formula.
It was not that long ago that men were the breadwinners and women were expected to manage the home and rear children. There’s still a lingering residue of that obsolete societal norm. New mothers in the workplace are all too often seen as disruptive sources of inconvenience. Managers wonder, whether overtly or subconsciously, why a woman should be entitled to the sort of unproductive “time off” that a hard-working man would never ask for.
Progress is being made, both on the legal front and in the evolving attitudes of employers toward distinctly female issues. However, as seems to be the case with all essentially important progress, it comes slowly, and at a cost. Let me know what you think. Thaïs
About Dr. Thais Aliabadi
As one of the nation’s leading OB-GYNs, Dr. Thaïs Aliabadi offers the very best in gynecological and obstetric care. Together with her warm professional team, Dr. Aliabadi supports women through all phases of life. She fosters a special one-on-one relationship between patient and doctor. We invite you to establish care with Dr. Aliabadi. Please click here to make an appointment or call us at (844) 863-6700.
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