Is Your Company Friendly to Breastfeeding Workers?

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Sep 15, 2016

Have you heard the term “brelfie”? It’s a twist on the word selfie’ and it’s a new trend in which everyone from celebrities to non-famous folks take pictures of themselves while they are breastfeeding. (I guess that would make the painting of Nursing Madonna the original brelfie!)

Famous paintings aside, opinions are divided on whether or not it is appropriate to ‘flaunt’ your breastfeeding. Some find it beautiful, while others say it is over-sharing and indicative of our Facebook/Instagram culture. Whatever your take, it makes one thing clear: Breastfeeding is becoming ever more popular and normalized in our culture, and with good reason. The World Health Organization advises that women breastfeed for up to two years, while the American Academy of Pediatrics advises that babies be breastfed exclusively for 6 months.

However, the CDC reports that only 52% of infants are still being breastfed at 6 months and the percentage that are exclusively breastfed at six months is a mere 22.3%. Among working women, a 10-year-old report says only 10% were nursing their babies by the 6-month mark. Instead, they turn to formula, which many argue simply cannot provide the same level of nutrition that breastmilk can. (Additionally, breastfeeding is healthy for mom, too: It can help decrease the risk of postpartum depression, as well as burn calories for women trying to lose the ‘baby weight.’)

It’s the law

While federal law requires companies to provide a reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for one year after her child’s birth (along with a safe, private place to pump), this is only for non-exempt employees. And, companies with less than 50 employees are not required to offer the break if they can prove it would impose an undue hardship.

But companies who do not strive to provide a breastfeeding-friendly environment could be losing revenue as a result. According to a report on Fast Company, companies who support breastfeeding employees can expect to see a 3-1 return in their investment. This means improved employee morale and employee retention, along with improved health for both mother and baby, meaning fewer sick days and less costly, time-consuming visits to the pediatrician.

However, creating a nursing-friendly environment can be easier said than done. While a nursing employee’s rights are protected by law, many companies struggle to implement practices that work for both the employee and the company. Indeed, research shows that most women do not have access to a private, clean space to pump.

A Forbes article included accounts of women forced to use bathrooms, unoccupied offices or storage areas.

What a company can do

It is clear that many companies are not doing enough to support their nursing employees. Here, I suggest a few steps which can help to improve your company’s culture around this issue:

Talk about it First and foremost, don’t treat breastfeeding like a dirty or taboo topic. Hand out a ‘Policy for Breastfeeding Employees’ to new and existing staff which outlines your company’s stance on these matters. For example, the sheet might underline your responsibility to employees, such as “The Smith Company will provide a private room for staff who need to breastfeed or express milk. The room is private and sanitary, located near a sink with running water for washing hands and rinsing out breast pump parts, and it has an electrical outlet.”

Supervisors must take a leadership role. Breastfeeding is not often discussed in our culture, especially when it comes to men, so there are many people who might not understand the realities of pumping — such as that a woman cannot skip a pumping session or routinely run late for pumping sessions without painful consequences as well as a negative impact on her supply. It is crucial for supervisors to negotiate policies and practices that will help facilitate each employee’s infant feeding goals.

Furthermore, it should be expected that all employees help provide an atmosphere of support for breastfeeding employees.

Supervisors must work to ensure that no harassment is taking place of breastfeeding employees. Even so-called jokes should be considered quite seriously by management, with consequences to follow if necessary.

And, remember, nursing mothers are not the only employees who might need postnatal support. Many companies are now offering prenatal and postpartum breastfeeding classes and informational materials for both mothers and fathers. Some businesses are even going so far as to provide breastfeeding equipment, from breast pumps to bottles to small fridges to store milk. Hospital grade pumps can be purchased or rented and stored in the lactation room for mothers to use. This means that employees won’t have to waste valuable time and energy carting their equipment to and from work  or to and from their desk to the lactation room multiple times a day.

For many of us, such provisions might seem like overkill or even inappropriate. A company-provided breast pump in the office?! However, we don’t think twice when companies provide a coffeemaker, a refrigerator, or clean, well-stocked bathrooms. Pumping is a physical requirement for nursing moms and when these needs are not honored, a mother’s breastfeeding attempts will decrease or even simply fail.

Time and time again, studies have shown that when companies support a healthy work/life balance and support the mental and physical health of their employees that their investment is rewarded. Companies cannot boast that they have a positive company culture if they are not supporting their nursing employees.