Recent studies indicate that breastfeeding moms aren’t getting the accommodation they need at work—although there’s something they can do about it.
Pumping milk at work is one of the worst indignities of new motherhood. The woman is hiding away in some tiny windowless closet, breasts out, hooked up to an uncomfortable suction machine, nervous about being away from their assigned work station and from their baby.
But there are worse scenarios: not having the opportunity to pump at all.
According to a research study published last week in the journal Women’s Health Issues, only 4 out 10 new moms who return to work even have a private space— and the breaks they need—to pump breast milk, even though federal regulations mandate employers to provide accommodations.
Without access to this opportunity, women are significantly more likely to stop breastfeeding their babies altogether.
Low-income and single mothers were even less likely to have a private space (beyond a bathroom), or to have the opportunity for work breaks to express milk, according to the study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.
“This is pretty woefully inadequate, based on everything we know about what moms and babies need,” said Katy Kozhimannil, the lead researcher on the study.
Since 2010, the Affordable Care Act has mandated that companies with over 50 employees provide reasonable accommodation and time for hourly workers to express breast milk.
The ACA (also known as Obamacare) does give an exemption to employers if they demonstrate that compliances is a hardship—but with just a little creativity, there are all sorts of innovative ways that workplaces can support nursing mothers, according to Dr. Joan Younger Meek, former chair of the nonprofit U.S. Breastfeeding Committee and a professor at the Florida State University College of Medicine. She’s even seen makeshift tents set up for agricultural workers.
It’s typically in an employer’s best interest to support breastfeeding, which has fairly well-documented health benefits. Since breastfed babies experience lower rates of illness, their mothers take fewer sick days from work. Mothers who receive breastfeeding support at work are statistically less likely to quit their jobs, according to the Health Resources and Services Administration.
If women choose to breastfeed after returning to work and need more support, there are steps they can take. Meek suggests that pregnant women begin the conversation about breastfeeding accommodations prior to going on leave. They can speak with other mothers at work to find out about their experience. They should also approach their manager or their human resources department to discuss their needs “It’s easier to plan ahead of time then to scramble at the last minute,” she said. Finally, women do not get support after returning to work—or whose employer is downright hostile to their overture—should contact a employment attorney or L&I lawyer to file a complaint with the Department of Labor.