Despite steps being taken to support breastfeeding mothers in the workforce, there are still about 27.6 million women of childbearing age left without the basic necessities to meet their breastfeeding goals. As a result, moms and their infants are missing out on vital health benefits, and employers are losing out, too.
In 2015, 4 out of 5 mothers (83.2 percent) began to breastfeed their infants, yet only 36 percent managed to continue breastfeeding for the entire first year of their baby’s life per the Center for WorkLife Law. This is partly due to the lack of support many mothers face when they return to work.
The lack of private space or adequate time to breast pump, coupled with the general discrimination moms often face in the workplace, mean it can often become too overwhelming and stressful for a mom to maintain her pumping goals.
However, according to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), many employers are required to provide reasonable break time for mothers to express milk for their children up to one year after their birth, as well as a private space that’s separate from a bathroom and free of intrusion from the public and coworkers for the purpose of expressing breastmilk.
Now that millennial moms account for more than 80 percent of births in the U.S., employers need to not only follow the basic breastfeeding laws but create a supportive environment to support pumping moms.
Taking the steps to provide the necessary support for working moms doesn’t have to be complicated or expensive. Even unconventional workspaces such as military bases, construction corporations, and police stations have taken the steps to support their working moms. It is not enough to provide a room to lactate in, though. We need to help moms feel comfortable pumping — as a chapter in Infant And Young Child Feeding notes, “If a mother is in severe pain or emotionally upset, the oxytocin reflex may become inhibited, and her milk may suddenly stop flowing well.”
When I was breastfeeding my son, I set a personal goal of one year. But like many new moms, I wasn't nearly as prepared for the experience as I thought I would be. Having a supportive workplace and co-workers, as well as support from my lactation consultant, husband, and other moms, helped me reach my goal.
Here are some tips to create a supportive workplace:
Take the initiative. Employers should approach moms or moms-to-be and ask them what they need. They should let them know that they are supported and ask how they can help create a relaxing environment to assist them in more easily achieving their pumping and overall parenting goals.
Provide what they need. Employers should dedicate a private, safe, and comfortable space for mom; even a room with a chair and surface to place breast pumps and accessories can work. Ideally, the room will also have a mini fridge for milk storage, microwave for sanitizing items, relaxing lighting, and access to running water nearby, if possible.
Create company morale. Supporting moms doesn’t stop at simply providing physical pumping necessities. It’s imperative to create a supportive culture by celebrating moms. We need to promote maternity policies in company meetings and orientations, use them to attract new hires, congratulate our hard-working moms, and put an end to any negativity towards breast pumping breaks or maternity leaves.
And working moms should be aware of the very real benefits for employers who support their staff. Instead of feeling like a burden if she asks for accommodations, moms who have returned to the workforce and are still feeding their babies should recognize the outsized impact they have.
Since breastfeeding is highly recommended for up to a year after birth and has shown to provide multiple health benefits for mothers and their babies, a supportive work environment can end up saving employers money long-term. A majority of employers that have already implemented a lactation program benefit from a three-fold return on investment because of reduced healthcare costs, increased productivity, and reduced turnover rates, per an analysis by the Center for WorkLife Law:
Healthcare savings. Since breastfeeding is healthier for infants, per the National Institutes of Health, it generates savings in healthcare costs for prescriptions and procedures. For example, after implementing a breastfeeding support plan, one employer saved $240,000 annually in healthcare costs for mothers and their babies and experienced a 62 percent drop in prescriptions.
The cost of lost work: When babies are healthier, moms don’t have to take as much time off in order to care for their sick infant. Once a support plan was in place, one employer saw the average of missing nine days/year due to caring for a sick infant drop to only three. The lowered absenteeism rates generated about $42,000 annually in savings. Since breastfeeding is healthier for moms too, another employer benefited from having 33 percent of their moms return to work sooner than expected, with 35% lowered health claims.
Increased Production/Positivity: Moms who have the support they need are often much more positive about their work environment, therefore resulting in employers experiencing higher rates of employee satisfaction, productivity, and employee retention. For example, after one employer took the steps to become more family friend, 83 percent of working moms felt more positively about the company and 67 percent intended to make it their longtime employer.
Women are taking the workforce by storm, especially as more mothers a returning to work now than ever before. These women expect family-friendly environments and will not hesitate to change positions to work for employers that support their breastfeeding goals. By implementing an effective breastfeeding support plan, mom and baby are able to take advantage of the health benefits while employers benefit from decreased healthcare costs, increased productivity and lower turnover rates.
Jennifer Jordan is the Director of Mom & Baby at Aeroflow Healthcare, a durable medical equipment provider that has provided breast pumps through insurance to hundreds of thousands of women. A working and once-breastfeeding mom, Jennifer — along with her team — is committed to supporting all moms on their breastfeeding journey through support, education, and exceptional customer service.