Breastfeeding at Work: Here’s What You Need to Know

Breastfeeding is a natural part of giving birth. As a parent, you may be all too familiar with the importance of breastfeeding. It can lead to numerous health benefits for both mother and child. Many women rejoin the workforce soon after giving birth, which means they’ll likely need to breastfeed at the office.

The healthcare industry never sleeps. As a healthcare provider, you may only get so much time off work as a new parent. If you’re thinking of returning to work as a new mother, learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding and how to go about it at the workplace.

The Health Benefits of Breastfeeding

The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that infants should ingest nothing but breast milk for the first six months after birth. From six months to the infant’s first birthday, the AAP recommends that the mother continue breastfeeding while gradually introducing solid foods into the infant’s diet.

The health benefits of breastfeeding are well known. The antibodies in breast milk can help stave off bacteria and viruses, reducing the chances of infection. Breastfed babies are 36% less likely to die from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS), and are 55% less likely to become obese later in life compared with babies who were not breastfed. Overall, breastfeeding has been linked to reduced healthcare costs as well.

Breastfeeding has been shown to benefit mothers in many ways. Studies show that women who breastfeed return to their pre-pregnancy weight more quickly than those that do not breastfeed. They also have a lower risk of premenopausal breast cancer, ovarian cancer, and osteoporosis.

Protecting the Rights of Nursing Mothers

Around half of new mothers start working outside the home within the first year after giving birth, and two-thirds of these women are working full time. With so many new mothers rejoining the workforce, breastfeeding at work has become a hot-button issue over the last few decades. Today, there are several laws in place designed to promote and protect breastfeeding among new mothers.

The Affordable Care Act (ACA), which was signed into law in 2010, requires health insurance plans to cover the cost of certain health services related to breastfeeding with no out-of-pocket expenses, including breastfeeding supplies like breast pumps and milk storage bags, and lactation counseling. However, these requirements do not apply to those covered under Medicaid, notably low-income women, who have disproportionately lower rates of breastfeeding compared to the general population.

The law also requires employers to let new mothers take breaks at work so they can breastfeed their child throughout the day. Section 4207 of the ACA amends the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) to incorporate a reasonable break time for nursing mothers, as needed, for the first year after the child’s birth. However, employers are not required to compensate nursing mothers for these breaks, which can disproportionately affect low-income women and hourly employees.

The employer is also required to provide nursing mothers with access to a private space that is not a bathroom. The amendment also includes several employee protections, so employers can’t retaliate against workers that assert their rights on the job or file complaints about these rights.

While the Department of Labor strongly encourages all employers to provide these accommodations for nursing mothers, federal requirements do not apply to all employers. The FLSA only applies to businesses that engage in interstate commerce and those that have gross revenues of at least $500,000 per year. Furthermore, employers with fewer than fifty employees can seek an exemption from these requirements if they place an undue financial hardship on the employer.

State lawmakers have also done their part to secure the rights of working mothers caring for infants. Every state except Idaho has laws in place that protect the right of women to breastfeed in either public or private locations. Most laws allow breastfeeding in any place where an individual has the right to lawfully be; however, these laws vary from state to state. In California, for example, nursing mothers do not have a right to breastfeed in another person’s home. In Illinois, women who breastfeed in a place of worship must “follow the appropriate norms within that place of worship.”

Standing Up for Your Right to Breastfeed at Work

Studies show that a lot of women have trouble breastfeeding their children for the first year after a child’s birth. According to the CDC’s 2018 Breastfeeding Report Card:

  • Among infants born in 2015, 4 out of 5 (83.2%) started out breastfeeding. This marks some of the highest rates of breastfeeding in the U.S. on record. It also shows that most mothers wanted to breastfeed their children and were trying to do so.
  • 46.9% of these infants were exclusively breastfeeding at 3 months.
  • 35.9% of infants were breastfeeding at 12 months.
  • 49% of employers provided worksite lactation support programs.
  • Over 1 in 4 babies are born in facilities that provide recommended maternity care practices for breastfeeding mothers and their babies.

Increasing these rates often comes down to education and changing the culture around breastfeeding. Employers, loved ones, and members of the community should be aware of the health benefits of breastfeeding.

If you need to breastfeed at work, research your right to breastfeed in certain places based on where you live. Talk to your employer about the laws mentioned above if you need to take breaks from work to breastfeed or you need access to a private room that is not a bathroom. Educate your colleagues, friends, and neighbors on why it’s important to breastfeed.

Nursing mothers also need support from their friends and allies. If your employer is giving one of your colleagues a hard time about breastfeed at work, stand up for their right to breastfeed. If someone calls out a woman for breastfeeding in public, show your support for nursing mothers.

Spread the word about breastfeeding and make sure you can breastfeed safely and comfortably at work.

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