Chicago lawyer Beth Stroup resumed her full-time job after a three-month maternity leave in 2003, following the birth of her son Jake. For the next 10 months, her workday included one to three 15-minute breaks to pump breast milk into a bottle. "It was a short time frame, but the health benefits he'll receive will last a lifetime," she said.
Stroup is among a growing number of women who continue to breast-feed their babies after returning to work. According to the most recent Ross Mothers Survey, conducted annually by the Ross Products Division of Ohio-based Abbott Laboratories, 29.5 percent of employed women breast-fed their babies at 6 months of age in the United States in 2003, compared with 15.4 percent in 1993. For many of those women, like Stroup, pumping milk at work was necessary to keep up their milk supply so they could continue breast-feeding.
La Leche League International featured two workshops on the topic of "Employment and Breastfeeding" at its biennial conference, held last weekend at the Hilton Washington.
Debbie Albert, a Florida-based lactation consultant who led both sessions, told attendees that since the 1990s, several large companies have developed formal, on-site lactation programs that offer services to facilitate breast-feeding needs, including specified space for pumping breast milk, small refrigerators for milk storage and guidance from experts. However, most employers still have no formal lactation policy or program and in most states, including the District, Maryland and Virginia, there are no laws requiring employers to allow breast-feeding, much less promote it in any way. "There is still a lot of room for improvement," Albert said.
In fact, even in an organization that has such a program or in a workplace with a supportive supervisor, women who wish to pump breast milk at work face challenges. "They may get dirty looks or get hassled by men or women co-workers because people perceive them as getting an extra benefit or think it's gross or think it should be done only in privacy or that pumping is dirty and unacceptable," said Gina Ciagna, director of breast-feeding relations and outreach at Alexandria-based Lansinoh Laboratories, a company that makes breast-feeding support products.
Consider Indiana mom Allison Kolar, the interim director of annual giving at Valparaiso University, who pumped milk at work for her son Aidan, 1, for seven months. Although her bosses were supportive, she endured negative comments from co-workers, such as, "I can't believe you're still nursing." Co-workers played pranks such as sending her a news link about a woman nursing a monkey.
Breast-feeding or pumping milk while on the job is unlikely to be completely stress-free in any work environment, but it is possible, said several experts at the conference. They suggested strategies to gain an employer's backing.
During your pregnancy or maternity leave, meet with your supervisor, or the human resources or benefits manager, and describe how employers benefit by encouraging mothers to continue breast-feeding. Those benefits include fewer sick days taken by the mother, higher rates of employee retention and reduced costs for employee training, Albert said.
Don't feel ashamed or embarrassed to use the word breast-feeding or to say, "This is important to me; this is what I'm going to need," when speaking to your superiors, advised Jennifer Hicks, a Minnesota-based writer who is the editor of the forthcoming book, "Hirkani's Daughters: Women Who Scale Mountains to Combine Breast-feeding With Work." Businesses want to retain valuable employees and often will "be more understanding than people expect them to be," she said.
Make clear that all you need are basic amenities: a clean and private space and adequate time to pump. "Often employers think that if they can't create a massive program that they can't offer it at all," Ciagna said.
Seek support and guidance from other women at your workplace who have continued to breast-feed or from organizations such as La Leche League International (www.lalecheleague.org).
Educate rude or unknowing colleagues by explaining to them why you are breast-feeding and why you need to pump at work.
Above all, be determined that you can do it. That attitude enabled Kolar to overcome the obstacles she faced while she pumped breast milk in her office.
"Nothing could stop me," she said. "The health of my child is my number one priority."