Can I Put My Milk Here? Breastfeeding and the Workplace
Bachelor’s Student in Public Health
We are people of many identities. One may identify as a student, daughter, and advocate. Another as a father, son, and researcher. We carry these identities with us wherever we go. So why is it when mothers return to work after giving birth that they cannot always continue lactating with freedom and accessibility? How can we support mothers in maintaining their identities in the workforce?
Breastfeeding has many benefits for mother, child, and society. For infants, it protects against infections and disease development. For mothers, it protects against postpartum bleeding and breast and ovarian cancers. For society, breastfeeding contributes to a productive economy, due to healthier mothers and children, and reduces environmental waste.1 What can the workplace do to support breastfeeding to gain these benefits?
3 Things Workplaces Can Do to Support Breastfeeding
1. Increase the Time of Maternity Leave. Anna Sadovnikova, alumna of Michigan Public Health and CEO of LiquidGoldConcept, a hands-on, comprehensive breastfeeding education company says, “The biggest challenge is that we don’t have adequate maternity leave.”2 Maternity leave has been shown to support exclusive breastfeeding which has many benefits like building a relationship between mother and offspring and allowing for physiological changes within the mother to produce enough milk for the infants proper development.1,2
The WHO recommends a minimum of four months paid maternity leave. This is something lawmakers and the public can advocate for. Currently in the US, the Family and Medical Leave Act only requires 12 weeks of unpaid leave which excludes caretakers, those working less than 25 hours/week, and other situations which in total excludes around 40 percent of the workforce.3
Individual workplaces can also take action to change their policies to have at least four months of paid maternity leave or even push for six months or more, which has been shown to encourage more exclusive breastfeeding.4
2. Create a culture that is supportive and understanding of breastfeeding mothers. Written policies are important. However, research has found that interpersonal communication can be more important than written communication for mothers to feel they have breastfeeding support in the workplace.4 Teaching coworkers and managers how to have positive interpersonal communication can help breastfeeding mothers feel supported.5
Kristen Douglass, owner and Lactation Consultant at Live, Latch, Love, says that returning mothers can feel very guilty for taking time to pump. Although some coworkers may feel like breastfeeding mothers may be less productive, in actuality, productivity increases and helps mothers miss less work long-term. In fact, companies with lactation support programs that include lactation spaces and classes have a 92% employee retention rate.6
3. Learn about breastfeeding and the time and energy it takes to pump. Sadovnikova says it could be beneficial for supervisors and employers, especially those without children, to learn about the benefits of breastfeeding and the difficulties of pumping milk. When LiquidGoldConcept brought breastfeeding training to non-breastfeeding individuals, many became more aware and understanding of the difficulties of breastfeeding.2
Breastmilk is not a biohazard. It is just like other mammal milk and is safe to put in the fridge with other food. Every human being eats; mothers are making it possible for their infants to eat. Breastfeeding is a normal human process and employees can and should support it for the hard work it is.
Kristen Douglass phrases it perfectly: “It’s a public health initiative, not a lifestyle choice anymore.”6 So, what are you doing, still staring at this screen? This is the pursuit, start taking action right now and pursue better support for breastfeeding in the workplace.
- Rimes, Karina Abibi, Maria Inês Couto de Oliveira, and Cristiano Siqueira Boccolini. “Maternity Leave and Exclusive Breastfeeding.” Revista de Saude Publica 53, no. 1 (2019): 1–12.
- Anna Sadovnikova (CEO, Liquid Gold Concept), phone interview with author, March 20, 2019.
- Ludden, Jennifer. “FMLA Not Really Working For Many Employees.” National Public Radio, Inc., February 5, 2013.
- Chuang, Chao Hua, Pei Jen Chang, Yi Chun Chen, Wu Shiun Hsieh, Baai Shyun Hurng, Shio Jean Lin, and Pau Chung Chen. “Maternal Return to Work and Breastfeeding: A Population-Based Cohort Study.” International Journal of Nursing Studies 47, no. 4 (2010): 461–74.
- Anderson, Jenn, Rebecca A. Kuehl, Sara A. Mehltretter Drury, Lois Tschetter, Mary Schwaegerl, Marilyn Hildreth, Charlotte Bachman, Heidi Gullickson, Julia Yoder, and Jamison Lamp. “Policies Aren’t Enough: The Importance of Interpersonal Communication about Workplace Breastfeeding Support.” Journal of Human Lactation 31, no. 2 (2015): 260–66.
- Michigan Breastfeeding Network. “How Lactation Support Benefits Employers.” MIBFN, n.d.
- Kristen Douglass (IBCLC, Live, Latch, Love), phone interview with author, March 25, 2019.
About the Author
Josie Lee is an undergraduate student studying Public Health Sciences and Business at the University of Michigan. She found her interest in infant and maternal health after an inspiring lecture at Doctors Without Borders in Geneva. Her research has included WASH indicators association with diarrhea in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia and a cost-effective analysis on pediatric VADs to transplant. Her academic interests include mental health, global health, and humanitarian aid. She hopes to find a job solving healthcare problems with business solutions upon graduation.