The Milk Express: Breastfeeding and the Workplace

February 13, 2020

Breastfeeding can be a challenge when a new mom returns to work. Here is what employers need to do to support their employees.

Photo of rows of bottles of milk on shelves.

When I was a new mother, I could hardly make heads or tails of my day.  After accepting the fact that I would be nursing and changing diapers on repeat, I settled into my new normal while on maternity leave.  However, when I went back to work 10 weeks post-partum, I had to start over by learning another new normal:  pumping milk at work so that I could continue breastfeeding my child.

Photo of a woman breastfeeding a baby in a glider.
Photo by Ilde Cook | SheHeWe Photography

Now, to say the experience was complicated is an understatement.  At the time, I didn’t fully understand my rights as a nursing mother, nor did my employer.  However, times are changing, and there is really no excuse for people to be unsure about navigating this territory.

So, here is what you need to know about the laws surrounding breastfeeding in the workplace.  Being equipped with this information will ensure a smoother transition for everyone involved.

Benefits of Breastfeeding

Before getting into the requirements for employers, perhaps you should know why breastfeeding is such a big deal.  While there are many points that could be included in this list, here are three that are especially relevant for employers.

Black and white photo of a woman holding a baby outside.
Photo by Ilde Cook | SheHeWe Photography

For starters, breastfeeding creates a bond between the mother and child.  It is undeniable that healthy interpersonal relationships start at birth.  Therefore, supporting breastfeeding helps foster healthy relationships.  Furthermore, if your employee feels she is able to feed her baby from afar, it will help ease feelings of resentment about leaving her baby in order to return to work.

Next, breastfeeding helps build the baby’s immune system.  Think about it this way:  if you support your employee through the breastfeeding process, you could be helping your employee raise a healthy child, and consequently the employee would not need to take as many sick days.  Win/win!

Finally, here is one last point.  Breastfeeding can help mothers return to their pre-baby weight.  Now, if you know anything about pregnancy, it is that it can wreak havoc on a woman’s self-image as she comes to grips with her new body.  The reality of it is simply that most women feel like they have a completely different body in so many ways after the birth of their baby.  So, if you can play a role in helping them feel in control of their body, then I can assure you they will be grateful.

The Who’s Who of Breastfeeding

Now, most moms fall into one of three camps: Die-hard breastfeeding, pro-formula, or you-do-you.  Here is a look at the philosophies of each.

Photo of a bottle of milk in front of a woman lying on her back holding a baby.

The Die-Hard Breast Feeder

These moms eat, breathe, and sleep breastfeeding.  In fact, they often do all three simultaneously while breastfeeding, among other activities, some of which are questionable (NEVER breastfeed while cooking over a hot stove or opening an oven, for instance).  They recognize the benefits of breastfeeding, and are happy to give (sometimes unsolicited) advice.

The Pro-Formula Fighter

These moms might have started out breastfeeding, but decided to switch to formula after a period of time.  Others might never have breastfed at all, and started their baby on formula while still in the hospital.  Either way, they don’t doubt the benefits of breastfeeding, but for one reason or another they chose to feed their baby formula.  They live by the philosophy that they were formula fed and turned out fine, so their baby should, too.  Some feel ok about it, and others might harbor quiet feelings of shame or sadness at choosing formula.

Related:  How the 9/80 Schedule Could Change Your Small Business for the Better

The You-Do-You Mantra Mama

These moms could not care less whether you breastfeed your baby or feed him formula.  Why?  Well, because it’s your baby, not theirs!  They understand that breastfeeding is not as natural to everyone as some will have us believe.  Furthermore, they know that being successful at breastfeeding not only takes two participants, but also an equation that includes a variety of variables.  So, they support moms however they are feeding their babies, as long as their babies are fed.

Since you now know some of the mindsets of new mothers, you are probably more confused than ever.  How are you supposed to know which camp your employee falls into?  Well, the good news is you don’t need to know, because it’s none of your business!

Breastfeeding Statistics

Image of breastfeeding statistics.

While the philosophy your employee subscribes to may be none of your business, being fair to your employee when she returns from maternity leave is your business.  Therefore, we are going make you aware of the laws that you need to mind.  Before that, however, here are some noteworthy breastfeeding statistics from the CDC:

  • Approximately 83% of U.S. infants start out breastfeeding.
  • Approximately 58% of U.S. infants were still breastfeeding at 6 months.
  • Approximately 40% of U.S. infants were still breastfeeding at 12 months.
  • Less than 50% of infants were exclusively breastfed through 3 months.
  • Approximately 50% of infants were exclusively breastfed through 6 months.

The CDC sites possible reasons for the drop off in breastfeeding rates, including lack of support.  Specifically included in the report is the lack of support from employers.

Breastfeeding in the Workplace

Now, there are many reasons women may feel they are unsupported at work while they are breastfeeding.  Among these reasons:

  • No dedicated place to pump
  • Nowhere to wash pumping attachments
  • Nowhere to store expressed milk
  • No time to pump
  • Harassment, discrimination, or retaliation from supervisor or co-workers
Image of the words No TIME FOR CHANGE, with the "no" inside a slash indicating it is time for change.
Image by nivlare | Source

While you might be looking at this list and thinking you can work around the first four items, you might be scratching your head at the last one.  How could someone be harassed about breastfeeding? 

Well, believe it or not, pregnancy-related harassment and retaliation aren’t uncommon.  For example, do you know anyone who has been denied a break to pump milk?  That is a form of discrimination.  Or, have you ever heard a woman say that she felt like her co-workers gave her extra work when she returned from maternity leave, in order to make up for what they had to do while she was gone?  That’s an example of retaliation.  In an extreme situation, have you ever known someone to be fired once they announced a pregnancy or asked for space and time to pump?  In fact, these kinds of situations are the very reason why we have laws in place to protect pregnant and nursing women.

Breastfeeding Laws

So, now you are probably really nervous and wanting to know every single law so that you can make sure you are walking the line where breastfeeding is concerned.  If so, then I commend you!  It is admirable to want to do right by the people who are committed to the health and wellbeing of the next generation of humans.

Now, while each state has various statutory rights regarding breastfeeding, there are really only two FLSA laws that protect women who are pumping at work:

  1. Time to pump – The law states that you must give your employee reasonable break time to pump, and that they may take that time for up to 1 year after the baby’s birth.  Furthermore, the time must be given whenever the employee needs to express milk.
  2. A private place to pump – The law states that the private place to pump may not be a bathroom, it must be shielded from view, and that the door must have the ability to lock so that no one can walk in on the mother while she is pumping.
Related:  When Natural Disasters Strike - An Employer’s Guide

Hopefully, these are doable, from your perspective.  Either way, they are required by law, so it’s wise to make sure you are making every effort to implement them.

A Quiet Place

Photo of a sign that says "LACTATION ROOM A-109," pointing women in the direction of a room where they can breastfeed or express milk.
Photo by Sgt. Heather Redman | Source

No, this isn’t something out of a horror movie.  Rather, this should be the opposite experience for your employee.  Your responsibility to find a quiet—or at least a private—place should be your first priority when you find out you have an employee returning from maternity leave.  If you’ve already created a meditation room for employees, then this is the perfect space for nursing mothers to express milk.  Additionally, having a mini-fridge in the room would make milk storage convenient and discrete.

No Time Like the Present

Now, scheduling might be a bit tricky at times.  For instance, if you already have people meditating on a schedule or using the meditation room as a multi-purpose room, then you will have other people to consider.  However, it is important to know that a woman’s need to express milk will pretty much trump any other activity that takes place in that room.

Furthermore, her bodily schedule might not quite be in sync with the work schedule you have planned right when she returns to work.  You might even be tempted to pressure her to forego one of her pumping breaks in order to attend an important client meeting.  However, learn to be patient, and rest assured that her body and your schedule will begin to coordinate over time, and everyone will adjust.  After all, you can’t control nature, but you can control your own mindset. 

So, as you can see, statistics tell us that the majority of new moms will not exclusively feed their babies breastmilk through their first year.  Consequently, many moms resort to formula, despite wanting to breastfeed, because they don’t feel supported when they return to work.  So, it is wise for employers to recognize their role in these statistics.  Consider designating a place for your employee to express milk.  Also, work on being flexible with your employee, knowing that her schedule will be a little off at first, but will eventually even out.  After all, putting in the work at the beginning can pay dividends in the long run. 

Photo of a baby sitting in the grass with a furry hat on her head.
Photo by Ilde Cook | SheHeWe Photography

Subscribe to our newsletter

Get the latest from the world of payroll & HR delivered straight to your inbox!