Despite the changing demographics of colleges across the country (including more nontraditional students with young families), breast-feeding has never been a truly integrated part of the campus culture at most schools. Employees who breast-feed are protected under state and federal workplace laws but often must jump through a number of hoops to make pumping at work a reality. While students have a legal right to breast-feed or pump anywhere on campus, as they do in all public places, their schools are not required to accommodate their needs in any way.
“Colleges can claim they are breast-feeding-friendly just like any other place, but without building a culture of support and people to hold up that claim, it means nothing,” says Chandra Kelsey, co-chair of the Connecticut Breastfeeding Coalition. “To me, becoming breast-feeding-friendly is an investment in supporting mothers — whether they are faculty, staff, students or visitors — and creating an environment on campus that is truly supportive and inclusive.”
Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven is attempting to do just that. The school has been working on an initiative designed to turn its campus into a place where all breast-feeding mothers feel seen, understood and valued. This initiative, spearheaded by Michele Vancour, who serves as the university’s director of the office of faculty development, has opened up a campuswide dialogue around what kind of support system breast-feeding women need and why higher-education institutions should provide it to them.
“Without supportive environments, it’s impossible for moms to succeed in meeting their personal goals for breast-feeding,” Vancour says. “We want students and employees to have equal access to lactation supports on campus so they can achieve their academic and breast-feeding goals, rather than having to choose one over the other.”
After 18 months and one pilot program, SCSU’s efforts have been formally recognized: Last month, Kelsey and the CBC gave the university an official breast-feeding-friendly designation, which acknowledges the school’s work to make breast-feeding synonymous with its campus culture.
In addition to the creation of a new, centrally located lactation space in the main library, what stands out about SCSU’s initiative is the way Vancour engaged everyone on campus in the effort to promote and protect breast-feeding mothers. This involved opening informal or temporary lactation spaces in most buildings, continually developing plans for additional permanent spaces in existing and future buildings and enlisting help from a roster of campus-based “breast-feeding champions.” There are more than 50 of these volunteer advocates on campus, including faculty, staff, administrators and students, who help parents find lactation spaces. They also advocate to have more space set aside for pumping, and better amenities for nursing mothers, Vancour says.
The issue of official lactation spaces — as well as how and where to find them — is a critical part of the discussion about how to create breast-feeding-friendly campuses.
It’s also one that disproportionately affects students. Some campuses offer no official lactation spaces, leaving students to seek privacy in parked cars or bathrooms. Sometimes the official lactation space is a former storage closet outfitted with a chair and a “do not disturb” sign hanging on the door. Sometimes the only official lactation space is on a remote side of an expansive campus, meaning students have to factor travel time into their pumping schedule.
Some students say they feel as if they must choose between continued breast-feeding and their education — despite the well-established health benefits of breast-feeding to mother and baby.
Thankfully, this is no longer the case at SCSU. “My experience breast-feeding on campus has been wonderful,” says Trina Houle, mother of two and a master’s student in the nursing program. “The lactation room in the library is the kind of quiet and safe place breast-feeding mothers dream of, and I never had any concerns about my ability to breast-feed while working on my degree.”
Because this designation benefits faculty, staff and visitors, as well as students, there is now a collective understanding on the SCSU campus that breast-feeding is a part of life for many of the people who spend time there.
“Before this initiative, I had to do all the research about pumping at work myself,” says Carla Flynn, assistant director of undergraduate admissions, whose daughter just turned 1. “I had to meet with human resources, my supervisor and my supervisor’s supervisor to talk with them about lactation space, time away from my desk and how my pumping would impact my day in the office.”
Now, Flynn says, all of that information is easy to find, and the breast-feeding champions guide breast-feeding mothers on how to advocate for themselves with their professors or supervisors. But the hope is that as the initiative grows, those conversations will become less challenging — and perhaps less frequent.
“The climate on campus is changing,” Flynn says. “This initiative is normalizing breast-feeding and pumping for our younger student body. My student workers know what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. It’s not a secret, and I think that’s empowering.”
Andrea Adimando, assistant professor of nursing, agrees. Before having her first child two years ago, she worried about where she would pump and store milk while on campus, how she would integrate her pumping schedule with her teaching schedule and class locations, and how she would pump privately without neglecting student needs.
Since then, Adimando has had a second child — who is now 4 months old — and her experience has been significantly different: “There is a community of support I can turn to at any time,” she says.
For many universities, the degree to which SCSU has embraced breast-feeding on campus may seem out of reach. But Kelsey and Vancour disagree; they cite community partnership, support of campus leadership, identification of “flex” lactation spaces (areas that can be quickly and temporarily converted as needed) and the volunteer breast-feeding champions as the most important pieces of the puzzle — all efforts that required creativity, not capital, to be sustainable and successful.
“An institution has a lot to gain from mothers on campus that choose to breast-feed — reduced absenteeism and health-care costs and increased productivity, employee satisfaction and loyalty,” Kelsey says. “When colleges are competing for students, it helps to be committed to making changes that consider students’ and their families’ needs.”
More information about SCSU’s breast-feeding-friendly campus can be found here.
Sarah Bradley is a freelance writer and creative writing teacher. She is mother to three wild and wonderful boys, and wife to one extremely patient husband. You can see her attempts at finding a mother-writer balance on Instagram.
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