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World Breastfeeding Week 2013: The Workplace and Employment Circle of Support

During World Breastfeeding Week 2013, we will be highlighting the work of IBCLCs in each of the 5 Circles of Support mentioned in this year’s theme ~ Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers. Each weekday during this celebratory week, we will be shining the light on innovative and exciting models of care in each of these areas. Check back everyday for more encouraging examples of breastfeeding supporters being close to mothers.

Vergie Hughes, USA

IMG_3126We were able to interview Vergie while at the 2013 ILCA Conference in Melbourne, Australia. Vergie has a long history of working in maternal child health and for the past 27 years, she has been an IBCLC. In addition to her work described here, she is the program director for Lactation Education Resources where she provides education for lactation consultants (and lactation consultants-to-be) all over the world. She shared with us the following responses.

This year’s World Breastfeeding Week theme is “Breastfeeding Support: Close to Mothers”. The organizers have identified 5 Circles of Support that are critical for breastfeeding mothers in our world and one of those circles is “Workplace and Employment”. Can you describe for us the work you are doing in the field of lactation to support working mothers? How did you become involved in this work? What does a typical day of supporting working mothers look like?

I have been the lactation consultant working on a contract with America Online (AOL) for more than 10 years now. I have worked in many areas of lactation over the years, but this is one of the most fun. I teach prenatal breastfeeding classes, have phone and email contact with the mothers [who are employed by AOL] over the months of pregnancy and during the time they are establishing lactation. Some even call me from the hospital, since we have an established relationship. Then, we keep in contact regarding any questions that come up and as they plan to return to work. The continuity of support with these mothers is so rewarding and often lacking in other work venues.

AOL is wonderful in that it provides 3 months of maternity leave and a pumping room with a hospital grade breast pump in each facility. Those things really make it easier for mothers to maintain breastfeeding when they do return to work.

The World Breastfeeding Week organizers stated “Employed women face challenges and need support at working and breastfeeding. The opportunities for mother support are as varied as the work women do, but usually involve facilitating mother-baby contact or expression and storage of breast milk.” Can you expand a bit on what some of the unique challenges are that women who work away from their babies face?

I do think that the women that I work with at AOL have an ideal situation since they are in an office environment with good support. It is not so easy for women who work in an outdoor environment, a busy retail environment, or in a setting with an unsupportive supervisor or co-workers. A lactation consultant can be the key person to help this mom problem solve her pumping situation and suggest strategies for persevering in a hostile workplace.

The challenges and need for support for women who are working outside of the home have been present for many years. But there is hope! What are some of the most recent initiatives, laws, and policies that have made breastfeeding for women in the workplace easier over the years? What are your hopes for the future?

I do think that support for breastfeeding has improved over the past few years. In the United States, the new Affordable Care Act regulations have made breast pumps more available to mothers, which is good. However, the quality of these pumps and the quick availability is often lacking.

The regulations regarding workplace accommodation of lactating mothers has been supportive of women who request time and a place for breast pumping. Hopefully, a supervisor would provide these accommodations for the breastfeeding mother because it is the “right thing to do”. But, if not, then the mother has the support of the regulations to push for the time and facilities that she needs.


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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