A Breastfeeding Mom’s Rights in the Workplace

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Each year in the United States, more women are initiating breastfeeding than the year before. This is wonderful news for mothers, babies, families and society at large. Breastfeeding has significant health implications that don’t just benefit mothers and babies, while they are breastfeeding, but impact the course of their entire lives. An infant who is breastfed has better mental, physical and emotional health. 1 Breastfeeding mothers have lower rates of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, diabetes and better bone health. 2 Society reaps billions of dollars annually as breastfed infants have lower healthcare costs – for life – and parents miss fewer days from work tending to a sick child. This is all great news, and mothers and families should be applauded for the strides they are making in breastfeeding rates.

But though our nation’s breastfeeding initiation rates are rising and were at 76.5% in 2013, only 16.4% of mothers were still exclusively breastfeeding at six months.3 This is despite the American Academy of Pediatrics, World Health Organization and every major pediatric association in the world having a policy statement that exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life is what every baby should receive. What is happening between the time a mother and baby begin their breastfeeding relationship following birth to the first six months? Though there are a variety of issues that are causing mothers to stop breastfeeding early (such as lack of qualified lactation support in the beginning to help with problems/issues, the anxiety of breastfeeding in public, or the pressure on a mother having to return to work) another major stressor for breastfeeding mothers is pumping in the workplace.A breastfeeding mom's rights in the workplace

Of 38 industrialized nations, the US ranks dead last in paid maternity leave, as well as unpaid time allowed off work.4 Mothers are forced to begin thinking about returning to work even before their breastfeeding relationship is well established. They then return to work to find an unsupportive employer who puts up every obstacle imaginable to make pumping at work seem like an almost insurmountable challenge. I recently heard from a mother who was relegated to pump in a very non-private conference room, told she needed to clock out to pump (even though her employer is required by law to give her paid breaks throughout the day), and co-workers and her boss make comments and snickers, so she will feel as uncomfortable as possible pumping at work.

So what are mothers who pump in the workplace entitled to? Are there any protections by law? Actually, there are. And while the law is not comprehensive, it is a start. Under the 2010 Affordable Care Act’s Break Time for Nursing Mothers, employers are required to provide “reasonable break time” for breast milk expression for nursing mothers during the first year of a baby’s life. Employers must “provide a place that is not a bathroom, shielded from view, and free from intrusion from both coworkers and the public.” In addition to this federal law, many states have breastfeeding laws and 24 have laws specific to breastfeeding in the workplace.

Prior to this 2010 law, breastfeeding mothers had few rights and were at the complete discretion of their employer. Though now there is coverage, not every breastfeeding woman is afforded protection. For example, it only covers hourly employees and not salaried ones. It doesn’t have a penalty for businesses that do not comply. And the vagueness of a “reasonable” amount of time for expression is left for much interpretation. U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced a bill in the spring of 2013 that would push to amend the labor law to include salaried employees. While it is stalled, it does seem breastfeeding is getting more attention in recent months.

The last decade has seen more breastfeeding research than in all of history combined. It is no longer a fringe group who extols the benefits of breastfeeding and extended breastfeeding. It is well known and documented that breastfeeding is not only the norm for infant feeding, but will save the US billions of dollars every year if mothers breastfed their babies according to the World Health Organization’s standards: exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months and continued breastfeeding alongside solids for two years and beyond. While this goal is extremely difficult in the US when a mother must return to work so early compared to most other countries around the world, there are many things employers can do to help mothers meet their individual breastfeeding goals and allow employers to reap benefits as well (happy, loyal employees; less employee recidivism; less time away from work for illness).

But until every employer understands the benefits of helping mothers reach their breastfeeding goals, it will continue to take brave and determined moms who are educated on their rights and help others understand them as well. For all women expressing in the workplace, I applaud you and say, “Carry on and keep pumping!”

So, tell us: do you have experience with pumping in the work place? Has it been positive or negative?

KristaGray_HeadshotKrista Gray is an IBCLC, La Leche League Leader, and mother of four breastfed children, including preemie twins. At Nursing Nurture Krista shares research-based information and experience to help moms in their breastfeeding journeys. You can also connect with Krista on Twitter {@nursingnurture} and on Facebook {fb.com/nursingnurture}.

  1. http://www.nursingnurture.com/breastfeeding-benefits-baby/
  2. http://www.nursingnurture.com/breastfeeding-benefits-mother/
  3. Breastfeeding Report Card, 2013. Centers for Disease Control, Division of Nutrition, Physical Activity, and Obesity
  4. Ray, R, et al. (2009) Parental Leave Policies in 21 Countries: Assessing Generosity and Gender Equality. Center for Economic and Policy Research. Washington, D.C. www.cepr.net

{Photo credit @iStock.com/dml5050.}

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