By Rebecca Adams
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, May 13, 2008
For many new mothers returning to work, one accessory is essential: the breast pump.
But the pump, used to express milk so a working woman's eight-or-more-hour separation from her baby need not stop her from breast-feeding, has a limitation: It's helpful only if there's a conducive place to use it.
Washington area women have hooked up electric or manual versions in parked cars, restrooms, a telephone booth and the basement storage room of the National Zoo visitors center, where a box of panda costumes doubled this spring as a table on which one woman set her pump, bottles and other equipment.
Not perhaps what the D.C. Council had in mind when it passed a law in December requiring employers to provide female workers a private, clean space, outside a restroom, to express milk. The Child's Right to Nurse Act also gives a woman the right to breast-feed, covered or not, in any place, public or private, where she has a right to be.
Complying with the law has proved to be a challenge for some local employers, especially those with limited space. Many voice support for the law but say they need time to adjust their facilities or operations. (Women who feel their employer is not following the law can file a complaint with the D.C. Office of Human Rights.)
The law grew out of a national movement aimed at encouraging women to give their children breast milk until age 1, as medical experts recommend. A breast-fed infant is 21 percent less likely to die in the first year than one who is not breast-fed, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and breast milk helps protect babies against a long list of infectious diseases. Some studies suggest it decreases their chances later in life of problems such as diabetes, asthma and cancer. It also appears to improve cognitive development, according to a study published this month in the Archives of General Psychiatry.
For moms, benefits include a lower risk of breast and ovarian cancer as well as protection against weight gain.
But pumping at work can pose so many challenges, including time, space, storage and refrigeration, that some women simply give up.
Unsuitable conditions "have been a major problem," said Ruth Lawrence, a physician who chairs the executive committee of the AAP's breast-feeding section.
Laura Viehmann, a physician who is the breast-feeding coordinator for AAP's Rhode Island chapter, agreed. "If you don't have a private office, this can be a huge thing to negotiate. It's well-documented that there are decreased rates of breast-feeding among working moms. Employment is the biggest obstacle to gains in breast-feeding rates."A Little Privacy
The new District law joins protections in Virginia and Maryland for nursing moms. Virginia exempts breast-feeding women from indecency laws and allows women to breast-feed on state property but doesn't address the use of breast pumps. In Maryland, a woman may breast-feed her infant in any public or private place, but again the law does not mention pumping. Under federal law, any woman who has a right to be on federal property has a right to breast-feed on that property; there's no word on pumping.
Legal protections for women pumping milk are needed, say breast-feeding advocates, because any disruption in expressing milk could sink a woman's chances of being able to produce enough for her child. If she doesn't have a chance to pump, her supply dwindles.
In theory, very small or cash-strapped employers could seek an exemption from the District law. But some lawyers say that would be a tough argument to make.
"Ninety-nine percent of all employers can do this without any hardship at all," said Todd Bromberg, a partner with the law firm Wiley Rein. Companies that mount such a claim will find it an unappealing exercise, Bromberg said, in part because they have to reveal their finances. "You can see juries saying, 'You make millions of dollars and you can't afford a space for mothers to express milk?' "
To be sure, even some nursing mothers say parts of the District law go too far.
"I don't think that any women should expect their co-workers to be comfortable with breast-feeding out in the open," said Rachel Ellis, who pumps at work for her 10-month-old.
But giving women a private space other than in a restroom is critical, said Lawrence of the AAP. "Who else eats their lunch in the ladies' room?"
Some breast-feeding moms adopt a sense of humor about it. One District mom posts a picture of a cow on her office door to alert co-workers that she is pumping.
Another, lawyer Jennifer Kefer, has learned modesty doesn't require complete privacy. When her first child was an infant in 2004, she worked part time for the Environmental Defense Fund and pumped in a phone booth at the office. Now she pumps in a shared office at the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life. The office has glass doors in full view of a half-dozen other employees, men and women. Kefer just covers herself with a shawl and keeps going. None of her co-workers seem to mind when they pop in to ask questions while the pump hums in the background.
Sharese M. Reyes, a lawyer at Hogan & Hartson, has hard-to-beat resources at work: a company lactation suite and her private office. But during a month-long project with an off-site client, she had to use a manual pump in her car.
That's "a common problem" for many women, she said.
Co-workers, she added, aren't always sympathetic. "There's a perception that why should you receive special preference or treatment just because you're a nursing mother?"Acting Naturally
If there's one place where a nursing mother might expect plenty of support, it's the National Zoo, dedicated to species survival and family-friendliness. As part of the federal government, the zoo is exempt from the District statute. But the nonprofit Friends of the National Zoo, which raises funds for the zoo, manages its concessions and shares some facilities, is covered, and a FONZ employee found herself waging a battle there this spring.
When Vanessa Jones, who ran the FONZ children's education classes, returned in January from maternity leave, she first persuaded some colleagues to let her use their private offices for 10 or 15 minutes two to three times a day.
When that grew inconvenient, zoo officials installed an electric outlet in the bathroom for female employees and directed her there. "Our building has no private office space that could easily be converted into a room to accommodate women who require space to express their milk," said zoo spokeswoman Pamela Baker-Masson. "The first viable solution seemed to be the ladies' room."
But Jones did not want to use it.
"The message that sends, when employers relegate nursing to the bathroom, is that it's an embarrassing bodily function that should just be kept away," Jones said.
A supervisor offered a basement storage area near the parking garage, which lacked an accessible electrical outlet and couldn't be locked from the inside. After trying that for a while, Jones brought her baby in and fed him in a shared office space. That proved controversial.
Zoo officials placed a chair behind a bright-colored curtain in the bathroom, and deputy zoo director Mary Tanner sent out an e-mail directing nursing moms there.
"Offices may not be used for this purpose," read the Feb. 13 e-mail, "unless we provide an office for everyone for this purpose. Obviously, we are not in a position to do this."
Jones resigned in March and recently moved to Williamsburg.
FONZ director Bob Lamb said the zoo has "fully complied with" the law. "It requires a reasonable effort, and that's what we've done," he said. "The law is important. We want to encourage mothers who wish to come to the workplace."
The zoo's policy is evolving, he added, and FONZ is considering sites for a private lactation space. "I am not satisfied that we have found a permanent solution," Lamb said.
Rebecca Adams is a Washington area freelance writer. Comments:firstname.lastname@example.org.