fbpx How (and Why) Employers Should Support Breastfeeding at Work
A woman breastfeeds her newborn with one hand while reading a book in her other hand.
A woman breastfeeds her newborn with one hand while reading a book in her other hand.

How (and Why) Employers Should Support Breastfeeding at Work

Federal protections exist, but gaps in access and legal loopholes are hindering nursing parents.
Xenia E.
Written by

Xenia E.

Netflix's "Workin' Moms" lead character Kate Foster returns to work shortly after the birth of her baby and has nowhere to pump breast milk, so she retreats to the inconvenience of a public bathroom stall. Unfortunately, the scene portrayed isn't fiction for many nursing parents in the workforce.

Even though protections from the Affordable Care Act (ACA) exist, there are gaps in access to workplace breastfeeding resources, according to a small 2020 study published in Workplace Health & Safety journal. Of the 52 survey respondents, the answers indicated the following:

  • 36.5 percent reported their work schedule was too demanding to take breaks for breastfeeding.
  • 28.8 percent did not have access to breastfeeding resources at work.
  • 26.9 percent did not have access to a designated breastfeeding space or the designated space was dirty.
  • 11.5 percent reported other challenges, such as difficulty finding breastfeeding information at the workplace, difficulty making arrangements at the workplace for breastfeeding, and difficulty feeling comfortable expressing breast milk while at work.

In the United States, there are workplace protections in place to support nursing parents, but unfortunately, there are holes in the law and many parents don't receive the support they need.

Protections in place for nursing employees

Break Time for Nursing Mothers is a federal law signed in 2010 covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. The law requires employers to provide reasonable unpaid break time for a nursing parent up to their child's first year. The law also requires employers to provide a private place, other than a bathroom, for nonexempt employees to express milk. In addition to federal law, there are state-specific protections for breastfeeding employees.

More than 9 million women of childbearing age are excluded from the Break Time for Nursing Mothers protection—that's 1 in 4 women—according to a 2019 report by the Center for WorkLife Law, an advocacy organization in San Francisco. This exclusion is due to a technicality in an overtime exemption. Women exempt from overtime are exempt from the protection. Employees in a wide range of occupations, from nurses and teachers to agricultural and transportation workers to lawyers and doctors, are excluded from the law's protections.

The PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act would expand breastfeeding protections in the workplace and fill the gaps that Break Time for Nursing Mothers created. The U.S. House of Representatives passed this bill, and it is currently pending a vote in the Senate.

Breastfeeding barriers at work

Barriers that plague breastfeeding employees are multifaceted and include failure to implement policy, lack of policy, lack of accommodations and fear of job insecurity.

"Managers either knowingly or unknowingly undermine an employee's breastfeeding journey through words and actions," explained Robbie Gonzalez-Dow, M.P.H., executive director of California Breastfeeding Coalition in Pacific Grove. "They might not think breastfeeding is important and, therefore, don't see a need to fully accommodate a lactating employee's needs. They might not understand the employee's physical need to remove milk regularly during the workday. This is why every employer needs a clear lactation policy that everyone sees, understands and can address."

"The barriers can be a lack of physical infrastructure—there aren't any dedicated lactation accommodations for employees to express milk or the spaces aren't easy to access or near where employees work—but there are also invisible barriers that have to do with a lack of policies designed to support working parents," said Sascha Mayer, CEO and co-founder of Mamava, a Burlington, Vermont-based company that makes freestanding lactation spaces.

Mayer explained that a written lactation accommodation policy clarifies an employee's rights and sets expectations for non-breastfeeding employees that breastfeeding employees need a predictable schedule of reasonable break time and a lactation space.

But even with policies in place, breastfeeding workers face inflexibility in their work hours and locations, report a lack of privacy, and are forced to pump in unsanitary bathrooms, explained Cheryl Lebedevitch, senior policy and communications manager at the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee, an independent nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C.

"They routinely share about the challenges of safely storing their expressed milk, and about their fears over job insecurity simply because they've requested or utilized workplace accommodations," Lebedevitch said.

Lack of paid family leave also impedes nursing parents. Parents with scarce to no paid family leave experience increased postpartum depression, according to a 2011 report by Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization headquartered in New York City. These parents frequently give up breastfeeding early.

Lack of paid family leave and medical leave impacts low-wage earners the most, Lebedevitch explained.

"Lack of paid family leave forces a lot of parents to return to work before they are able to establish a comfortable, consistent feeding routine, making many parents feel like they have to choose between their job and their baby," Gonzalez-Dow added.

Aside from the physical barriers of lack of accommodations, there's also gender discrimination for breastfeeding employees.

"Employees report feeling the pinch of being thought of as less professional or productive than their peers while also not feeling like they are doing all they should to care for their baby," Gonzalez-Dow said.

"Employees who take breaks to express milk should not be considered less valuable than those who don't," she concluded.

Providing accommodations in the workplace

The research behind supporting breastfeeding parents in the workforce is unequivocally positive. Workplaces that support nursing parents have better retention rates. A 2004 study published in the journal Pediatric Nursing looked at several companies with lactation programs and showed a retention rate of 94.2 percent for working nursing parents. The national average is 59 percent, according to a 2001 study by Mutual of Omaha insurance company.

Parents with break times and private places to express milk are 2.3 times more likely to exclusively breastfeed at six months. There are also multiple business incentives for workplaces to better support nursing parents. For one, breastfeeding lowers healthcare costs. Nursing parents are less likely to miss work because breastfed infants may get sick less often. Higher retention rates mean businesses spend less money on training and hiring new employees.

Supporting nursing parents at work is not expensive to implement. "This is definitely a solvable problem," Lebedevitch emphasized.

But proper training for managers on their requirements to support nursing parents is also imperative. Managers should counsel expecting parents on their rights and resources before the parents go on leave and when they return, Gonzalez-Dow advised.

"The reality is that the majority of breastfeeding parents today are also working parents. If parents want to continue feeding breast milk—medical experts recommend breastfeeding for at least one year, and longer when possible—they need to pump...at work," Mayer said.

"It's time that our workplaces, policies and culture catch up with the needs of working parents," Mayer concluded.