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21. Aug 2019

Working Breastfeeding Mothers: Challenges and Social Responsibilities

It is becoming increasingly normal for nursing mothers to return to their workplaces after the birth of their child. However, regardless of its “normalcy,” these women still face daily challenges as their needs are not being met when it comes to breast pumping.

Due to these challenges and the overall stigma that surrounds public breastfeeding, mothers are often forced to choose between the well-being of their child and their employment, a decision that is nearly impossible for many of these women.

What responsibility does an employer have to accommodate working mothers? And how can breastfeeding mothers overcome these challenges without sacrificing the well-being of her family?

Working while Pregnant and Breastfeeding – The “New Normal”

Image credit: mcmurryjulie (Source: Pixabay)

Image credit: mcmurryjulie (Source: Pixabay)

In 2014, the National Partnership for Women & Families conducted a survey which found that holding a job while pregnant or breastfeeding has become the “new normal.” In fact, in nearly 40% of families, women are the primary or sole source of income for the household.

While pregnant or breastfeeding, working mothers do need minor adjustments made to their day-to-day job in order to accommodate their needs, such as time and space for breast pumping.

Regardless of the increase in normalcy, pregnant and new mothers still find their needs for accommodation go unspoken or unmet. They may hesitate on voicing their needs for fear of losing their job or it may simply be that their employers failed to meet their needs due to neglect or bias.

Challenges Associated with Public Breastfeeding

The biggest challenges when it comes to public breastfeeding or pumping in the workplace have to do with modesty concerns as well as lack of space, flexible scheduling, and support.

Though there are ways to feel more comfortable nursing in public while practicing discretion, the other challenges are not as easy to overcome if mothers do not have the support of their employers.

It is recommended for breastfeeding mothers who are planning to return to the workplace to create a plan in conjunction with their employer’s standards. This includes informing the employer that there should be a designated space for breast pumping as well as sufficient time on a schedule that does not interfere with meetings or other daily obligations related to work.

It can be difficult for employers and individuals outside of the family circle to understand the importance of breastfeeding and pumping standards.

A critical review completed by Gail MacKean and Wendy Spragins highlights a five-layer model of human ecology which helps explain the perception of breastfeeding within each layer.

At the very center of the model is the mother and baby. As you step toward the outer layers of the model, you find that society is located at the outermost part showing that its perception of breastfeeding is so far removed from the intimacy between mother and child.

Though society has changed quite a bit over the years, it can still quite the balancing act mothers are required to play. With modern society being more bottle-based, it can be difficult for mothers to make breastfeeding a reality while trying to juggle the responsibilities of their daily lives.

Legal Rights and Fair Labor Standards

There are obvious health benefits for both mother and baby associated with breastfeeding, and while 81% of mothers start breastfeeding immediately after birth, only about 22% continue breastfeeding exclusively until at least six months postpartum.

This could be the direct result of unfair workplace conditions or lack of support from employers, which can also result in a mother’s physical incapability to produce milk for her child due to infrequent pumping or stress.

In order to receive the support these mothers so desperately need, it is important to understand their legal rights and employers’ responsibility to these women.

According to state law, all fifty states have laws in place to allow women to breastfeed in any private or public location. However, only thirty protect breastfeeding women from indecency laws and twenty-nine have laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace.

Section 7(r) of the Fair Labor Standards Act, which outlines break time requirements for nursing mothers, states that an employer must provide a reasonable break time and shielded place (not the bathroom) must be provided for these women.

The catch is that this amendment added in 2010 does not apply to employers who have less than 50 people in their employ. And even those that do still find loopholes to try to discriminate against nursing mothers.

Discrimination againt Breastfeeding Mothers

Nursing mothers need sufficient break time in order to pump properly, but oftentimes, employers don’t provide sufficient time. Mothers may only be allowed 15 minutes every four hours, enough to classify as a break in the employer’s eyes but not enough for a mother to completely drain her breasts and maintain her milk supply.

As such, there has been a steady increase in the number of lawsuits against companies that do not provide appropriate space or break times for their nursing employees. During the decade of 2006-2015, there were three times as many cases (3,223) involving family responsibilities as there were during the previous decade (873).

Of these cases, about 67% were related to pregnancy and maternity leave and 5% were in regards to discrimination based on motherhood. Though the number of motherhood related cases is relatively low (about 161 over a decade), for a “modern” society it is still quite alarming.

What Employers Need to Know

Perhaps the issue of insufficient break time and inadequate space for breast pumping provided by employers is simply due to discrimination. Or perhaps it is due to the fact that society is so far outside the circle of perception in regards to breastfeeding that employers simply need to be educated on what new mothers need in their workplace.

Every woman will have different needs when it comes to time required for breaks. This can make it difficult for employers to determine what is a sufficient allowance. It’s going to require communication between both parties as well as flexibility to meet the needs of everyone involved.

The space provided needs to be somewhere that is private – shielded from coworkers and customers/clients – and sanitary, which means not the bathroom. This can be a private break room with a lock or a cubicle with curtain where she will not be disturbed. It simply has to be somewhere that can fit a chair and a flat surface for her pump.

Employers are not required to pay their employees for milk expression breaks. If a new mother is a salaried employee, this isn’t too much of a concern. However, it can be a little tricky for those that work hourly. Again, this is where communication is key to finding a schedule that works for both parties.

It’s best for companies to create a lactation policy so that all mothers have the same level of support no matter their personal circumstances. No one should receive special treatment over another; all new mothers should have the same rights in the workplace so she feels supported in her balancing act between family and daily life.

Author Bio

My name is Giselle and I left the corporate world to become a full time Mom of a beautiful boy, and Editor of katherinerosman.com. This is a small site that we are growing quickly with the aim of becoming a central resource for Mom’s that will provide actionable advice and info guides. I have found so much support through online Mom communities and I am grateful to have the opportunity to contribute to the information that is out there, and hopefully help others in their own journey along the way.

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