Last week, after the American Academy of Pediatrics released a new policy bumping the recommended duration of breastfeeding from one year to two, the mood in my mom group text was darkly incredulous.
“Hahaha my first thought was ‘oh hell no,’” read one reply.
Another, in its entirety: “No no no no no.”
While the AAP called out in its guidelines that “significant societal changes” are required for its recommendation to be feasible, the acknowledgement is—well, it’s a bit of an understatement to call it an understatement. Feeding a baby is hard work even in the best of times. Right now, as parents in the US grapple with the loss of reproductive rights, an ongoing formula shortage, a child care crisis, and the still-fresh loss of last year’s paid family leave initiative, is not the best of times.
Recent events don’t inspire much confidence that those societal changes are on the horizon. Just a few weeks ago, the Senate failed to advance the PUMP for Nursing Mothers Act, which would have closed a current loophole in the The Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law, a federal workplace pumping protection that excludes around 9 million women of childbearing age.
The law, which requires companies to give breastfeeding parents unpaid time and a non-bathroom space to pump, doesn’t apply to workers exempt from overtime protections—meaning salaried employees and hourly workers in certain roles—or employers with fewer than 50 people and the ability to prove that compliance would be an “undue hardship.” (A separate federal law, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act, dictates that breastfeeding employees can’t be treated differently from their colleagues, but doesn’t require that workplaces provide accommodations for breastfeeding parents if they don’t provide analogous accommodations for other workers.)
Meanwhile, stock rates for baby formula aren’t expected to return to normal for several more weeks, extending a hunger crisis that’s spurred misguided calls to “just breastfeed.” But as many people have already pointed out in response, breastfeeding isn’t something that “just” happens. It’s something that happens only when a parent’s financial, familial, and medical circumstances all perfectly align with their willingness to sacrifice an astonishing amount of time, energy, and freedom. Because the body makes milk based on perceived demand from the baby, experts advise breastfeeding parents to pump roughly every three hours in the early months to keep their supply up.
By one widely cited estimate, breastfeeding takes up around 1,800 hours of time in the first year, making it only slightly less time-consuming than a full-time job. By my own personal estimate, roughly a million things had to go right for me to be able to breastfeed my infant son as I’ve done the past six months. I had the resources to afford the pump, the milk-storage supplies, the multiple visits to the lactation consultant, the prenatal vitamins. I had a partner at home who took on more of the household labor so I could focus on being our baby’s sole food source.
Crucially, I also had a supportive employer—one with a culture that emphasized caregiving and made sure I knew I could ask for what I needed. When I had to travel for a work offsite my second week back from parental leave, they didn’t just make sure the office space we were using had a lactation room; they proactively booked it, made sure the day’s break schedule was workable, and offered to arrange for my baby and husband to come with me, if that was what it took to make the trip feasible.
How a family feeds their child is generally framed as a personal choice, but workplaces have a staggering amount of power to determine if, and for how long, a parent is able to breastfeed. And right now, on the national level, there’s not much they’re required to do to wield that power fairly.
“If you don’t have these protections, you could lose your supply in a matter of days,” says Sarah Brafman, senior policy counsel at A Better Balance, a legal advocacy group for working caregivers.
But even workers who fall within the limits of the law may be uncomfortable pushing for the time they need. “We’ve talked with a lot of parents who say, ‘I’m trying to pump as much milk as I can now, because when I go back, there’s just no way I can make this work,’” says Jessica Lee, a senior staff attorney at the University of California’s Center for WorkLife Law. “A lot of folks are aware of the legal requirements, but they feel like they’re sticking their necks out to even ask for what they’re legally entitled to.”
And what they’re legally entitled to often still isn’t enough. A worker can have the pumping space and time and still be discouraged, in ways large and small, from feeding their child in the way they choose. Here are other ways workplaces can make breastfeeding more accessible:
Paid time off.
Ideally, an employer’s support for breastfeeding workers begins long before they return to work. “Paid leave is really at the core of a lot of this,” Lee says. “In the early postpartum period, a lot of these workers need to either breastfeed or express milk very regularly. And if you don’t get started with that quality routine, it’s very challenging to continue breastfeeding later on.” Milk supply is typically established over the first several weeks after birth, meaning that breastfeeding parents who can’t feed or pump regularly during that time will end up making less milk than their baby needs; meanwhile, a quarter of women who give birth in the US are back at their jobs within two weeks.
Sick-day policies also determine whether parents can afford to take time off to address feeding needs that inevitably arise. “Those paid sick days can be crucial,” Brafman says. “to be able to go to a lactation consultant, if you’re having trouble with latching, or [to recover] if someone gets mastitis”—a painful breast infection that affects around 10% of people who breastfeed.
And for plenty of other reasons. When my son was a few months old, he and I made multiple drives to a clinic an hour away for his tongue tie, a restriction that made it hard for him to eat: one trip for the diagnosis, another for the procedure to fix it, each taking up at least a half-day in total, plus post-op check-ups. Other parents I know have had to take their kids for regular weigh-ins to ensure their babies were eating enough. And for parents formula-feeding through the shortage, having paid time off to drive from store to store in search of formula can make the difference in getting the supplies they need.
Earlier this year, in a Zoom for a new parents’ group I had joined, the facilitator gave us a piece of advice. We should block off time on our work calendars for pumping, but we shouldn’t note on the calendar event what that time was for, she cautioned. It was something she’d heard over her years of working with mothers as they headed back to work: If colleagues knew it was for pumping, they might schedule something right over it.
Seemingly small elements of the way a company approaches meetings can play an outsize role in allowing its workers to breastfeed. There are social norms, like keeping calendar details private (for multiple reasons, an employee may not want to broadcast when they’re pumping) and a culture of respecting others’ schedules when determining meeting times. In remote and hybrid settings, there are also Zoom norms: “We’ve seen people penalized for turning off their camera in big staff meetings [to pump],” Lee says. A camera-optional policy has plenty of benefits, but one is that it gives breastfeeding parents more room to pump or feed on schedule.
One common battleground for breastfeeding employees working in person: storing milk in the office fridge. “Lots of employers get freaked out by it,” Lee says. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration “has made clear that it’s not a biohazard, but when we see cases like that, a lot of times we’re just relying on basic anti-discrimination principles: Why is this boss singling out breast milk? Are they regulating what Bob in accounting is putting in the refrigerator?”
Even when human resources and managers are supportive of their workers’ breastfeeding needs, others in the office may not be. Lee has heard from workers whose colleagues threw out their milk, and others who found angry notes on their milk asking them not to store it in communal areas. Remote work can be a respite from those types of situations, but a lack of shared space alone isn’t enough to transform a breastfeeding-hostile culture into a supportive one.
The best way to get everyone on the same page is to communicate policies to all employees, not just those directly affected. Employee handbooks should include the company’s lactation policy. Diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives can include material on supporting caregivers. Trainings on harassment—another area in which Lee says she often hears complaints—can cover what is and isn’t okay to say to a breastfeeding colleague.
“The more employers can put this information out there, the better,” she says.
Brafman notes that another best practice is for employers to make sure workers know their breastfeeding policy before they take parental leave. “Make clear to workers that breastfeeding is encouraged, and make sure that conversation is relayed early on,” she says, “so that someone who comes back to work already has a plan in place and isn’t left scrambling to figure it out.”
A flexible mindset.
One trap workplaces can fall into is assuming that one breastfeeding employee can comfortably fit into the accommodations of the one that came before them. “I think that’s important to remember that not everyone’s breastfeeding journey is the same,” Brafman says. “Some people may need to breastfeed two times a day. Some people may need to breastfeed four times a day. Both are absolutely normal and should be encouraged, while recognizing that people have their own individual needs, meeting individual employees where they are, and not expecting everyone to be in lockstep with one another”—a practice that serves not only breastfeeding employees, but their colleagues, too.
Correction: An earlier version of this article did not include the “undue hardship” caveat of the Break Time for Nursing Mothers Law for small employers.