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Working and Breastfeeding: Can we do both?

With the known benefits of breastfeeding for the infant, mother, and employer, it is discouraging that most mothers who initiate breastfeeding quit before their infants’ first birthday. Among children born in 2008, only 44% were breastfed at 6 months and 24% at 12 months, even though 75% were breastfed after birth. Work-related issues can be a major reason why women fail to start breastfeeding after the birth of their child, or stop breastfeeding before the child has received the full benefits.  With more than 50% of mothers of infants participating in the work force, we need to find ways to balance employment and breastfeeding.

Our recent study found that women who were working full-time (≥35hrs/week) were less likely to initiate breastfeeding or to continue breastfeeding beyond 6 months, compared to women who were not working. The breastfeeding experience of women who worked part time was similar to that of women who were not working. We also found that mothers in professional occupations (architecture, engineering, legal, health care practitioner, etc) were more likely to initiate breastfeeding when compared to women in administrative occupations or other occupations (namely farming, fishing, and forestry; construction and extraction; installation, maintenance, and repair; production; transportation and material moving; and military-specific occupations), even after taking into account several factors known to be associated with breastfeeding, including the amount of maternity leave time taken.

The findings from our study, and others, suggest that part-time work offers an effective strategy for successfully combining breastfeeding and employment. There has been some success with corporate lactation support programs in helping working women breastfeed longer.  However, pumping alone at work may be inadequate to maintain milk flow because direct breastfeeding stimulates the breasts more effectively than do the best electric or manual pumps. Among women who breastfed and worked, women who directly breastfed their infant during the workday persisted in breastfeeding longer than other breastfeeding women who returned to work.

We recommend that employers, in addition to providing comprehensive, high-quality lactation support programs, explore strategies that allow lactating mothers have direct access to their babies. Such strategies, as promoted in the Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, include having the mother keep the baby with her while she works, allowing the mother to go to the baby to breastfeed during the workday, telecommuting, offering flexible work schedules, maintaining part-time work schedules, and using on-site or nearby child care centers.  Because no single strategy will fit all employment settings, creativity is needed, especially for mothers who are not working in professional occupations. A woman’s decision to breastfeed, though personal, requires action from multiple players, if she is to succeed. Let’s act NOW!

Chinelo Ogbuanu, MD, MPH, PhD

Senior Maternal and Child Health Epidemiologist

Maternal and Child Health Program

Georgia Department of Public Health

 More information about our work is available in:

“Balancing Work and Family: Effect of Employment Characteristics on Breastfeeding”

J Hum Lact, August 2011; vol. 27, 3: pp. 225-238.

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8 Responses to Working and Breastfeeding: Can we do both?

  1. Donna Taylor 19 August 2011 at 20:27 #

    Bring your baby to work. As humans we have “brought our babies to work with us” for tens of thousands of years. Why should we start a new experiment now at the expense of our children. The workplace needs to yield to women’s rights!!!!

  2. Kathleen 21 August 2011 at 11:47 #

    I agree with the need to support breastfeeding for working mothers in many ways. However I disagree with keeping a nursing baby with you while you work, unless you have a helper to care for the baby with you too. This is unfair to the baby and the employer, women can not do 2 full time jobs simultaneously I am sad to say. I returned to work when my baby was 5 weeks – part time until he was 9 weeks then a new 4-day work week. Still EBF at almost 6 months with no endpoint planned for now. I split my lunchbreak into 3 – 20 minute breaks to enable pumping. I am however in the “professional” demographic and passionate about breastfeeding!

  3. Peggy Naylor, IBCLC 21 August 2011 at 14:55 #

    Working full time absolutely impacts not only the amount of breastfeeding, but also the duration. I have see this countless times including with my own grandchildren. At my daughter’s last job, she almost never could pump frequently or long enough and ended up having to wean to formula at 4 months. I am not optimistic this time will go better as she goes back to work at the baby’s age of 12 weeks and her office does not have even one private room where she could go and pump. It is ridiculous to think that in a country like ours, she will be forced to pump in her car even in the cold months because breastfeeding is not protected for all female employees.

    • Chinelo Ogbuanu 23 August 2011 at 12:52 #

      Ridiculous indeed! Hopefully, with the passage of the Reasonable Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law which requires employees to provide a ‘place’ other than the bathroom for milk expression, her office will have to provide a private room.
      Thanks for your contribution.

  4. Chuka 23 August 2011 at 15:02 #

    LThe benefits of breastfeeding can never be over emphasised. It is in everybody’s interest to enable mothers continue breastfeeding while at work especially with the use of workplace daycare centres. The mothers are bound to be more focused and productive, the babies healthier and the employers more satisfied.

  5. Chinwe Ukaonu 29 August 2011 at 02:32 #

    Yes, we can do both, but like you outline above, flexibility is the key. Nursing mothers need to be given flexible options to enable them breast feed and work part time if they so desire, at least for the baby’s first year of life. It can work if we determine to make it work. It takes some adjustments, but working part time could end up being a win-win for the employer and the nursing mom.

  6. Rita Rahayu 29 August 2011 at 06:51 #

    Hi, I’ve always been fascinated by this topic or anything that has to do with maternity protection. It is not that the employers don’t want to support breastfeeding mothers. It’s because they don’t understand the need to PROTECT breastfeeding. everyone does a lot of PROMOTION and SUPPORT but it’s the protection bit that is somewhat lacking. I was involved in a campaign to petition for 90 days maternity leave in 2010 for bank employees in Malaysia. I wore the hat as a breastfeeding advocate and an IBCLC — stressed on the importance of extended leave to help mothers bond with their babies and establish breastfeeding. As a result of this, all banks in Malaysia are required to give 90 days paid maternity leave to their female employees. Yay, everyone is happy! (Well, no, not quite!) Some employers feel as though there is no real value in all this “hoo ha”. Well, mainly because not all the mothers end up utilising this opportunity to actually “mother” their child.

    So, yes, it takes a collective effort from all parties to make this work for both employees and employers. If we can take a value driven approach on this, we would be able to communicate more effectively to all. Employers need to see how supporting breastfeeding help to lower health costs, increases productivity, employee satisfaction/loyalty, etc. Employees need to know what the risks of NOT breastfeeding are for them, their babies and their families. The reason given by some senior management officials of large companies/organisations is that increasing maternity leave would affect the company’s performance. Well, that is what planning is for, right? If a female employee is pregnant, you have 9 months to plan and prepare. It’s not like she’s been hit by a bus and gone, right? (sorry, wish i had a better example) So, planning is key! In return, a clear understanding between employee and employer is very important. Communicate the plan and execute it effectively. Treat it like a project. Remember that your failure to execute well will affect others in future! Employees should show their commitment and worthiness to their employers by being responsible. As an employer myself, my greatest asset are my people. I know that I have the best brains, best skills with me so I will do my best to retain them. As a result, I get a dedicated team who don’t just see their job as a “job” but rather they see a family that cares for them. Hence, they will put forth their best in their work in return. It becomes a win-win situation. I admit, it is NOT easy, but it is also NOT impossible! So, good luck to all of us!

  7. Tiffany 13 December 2011 at 16:43 #

    I am fortunate to work for a family-run franchise where the manager/owner treats his employees with respect and caters to the importance of parenting. My predecessor often brought her two young sons to work with her and I was given extra leave for maternity and am allowed to bring my baby (who is now six months old) to work with me. I’ve been bringing her since she was four weeks and we do very well together. We nurse privately in a side office where the owner has set up a video feed so I can monitor the desk and if anyone comes in needing assistance I just gently un-latch, go take care of the customer, and we return to our nurse session after. Baby girl never seems to mind the interruptions and honestly, we don’t get interrupted very often anyway. But I much prefer having her with me and having to interrupt her feeding occasionally to having to pump throughout the day – which by the way is a much bigger hassle to interrupt! Having to stop the pump, stow it away sanitarily, clean up any messes and put myself back together…I tried that when I first returned to work and it was a lot more difficult than bringing her with. I was at first concerned that customers would think it inappropriate for me to have my child with me but I have found overwhelming support on that front too. The majority of people who come through the door think it’s fantastic and laud my employer for being forward-thinking and family-conscious. I am truly fortunate!

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