The Nightmare Of Nursing At Work (And What Women Can Do About It)

Don't give up just yet.

November 9, 2017
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These poor women were starving and dehydrated from [nursing], and the conditions were not comfortable.

A former employee of a specialty food store in Elkridge, Maryland, watched her fellow female workers endure some unsavory conditions when it was time to pump.

Pregnant with her first child, she was concerned about what her future looked like if she continued to work at the store after she gave birth, because of what the nursing mothers at her store experienced.

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Although there was a break room, store management decided to create a “nursing space” in the store’s kitchen, which was often used to prepare for food demonstrations.

“This quickly became an issue,” she says. “So, the supervisors decided to set up a ‘pumping station,’ which was a chair in the hot attic during their 30-minute lunch break. To get to this, women had to climb a steep ladder lugging their breast pumps to the top.”

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And although the mothers were unhappy with the situation, the former employee says there wasn’t much they could do.

“Many of the women didn’t have a choice,” she said. “They accepted the conditions because they needed the job and needed to pump.”

She also says that although management was lenient if pumping breaks took a few minutes longer than expected, they made poor scheduling decisions, such as placing the women on the busy cash registers immediately upon returning from their breaks.

“These poor women were starving and dehydrated from [nursing], and the conditions were not comfortable,” she says.

Nursing is a mother, in case you didn’t know.

This round-the-clock job comes with sleepless nights, painful breasts, and feeling like you are your baby’s on-demand milk machine. And, as seen with the story above, nursing often becomes even more of an issue when a mother returns to work after maternity leave.

The inconvenience of these challenges [at work] just generates so much stress that they give up.

No matter what employers may think, the need to expel milk from one’s breasts doesn’t automatically stop when it’s time to go back to work. Rather, women require time to pump in order to provide milk for their children. If they don’t have the proper conditions in which to pump, they can face serious detriments.

Unfortunately, women across the globe constantly experience problems when attempting to nurse at work. Here, we look at the challenges they face—and what they can do to combat them.

A Working Mother’s Right to Pump

In order to pump milk, a mother typically needs to feel at ease and comfortable. If she’s stressed, hurried, or otherwise uncomfortable, her body will not release the milk in the same way it would as if she was relaxed.

Under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, employers are required to provide nursing employees with adequate break times in each instance the mother feels she needs to pump. Additionally, the workplace should contain a space that is designated for pumping.

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Former President Barack Obama signs the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act in March 2010 (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

With the current political climate, this act hangs in jeopardy. As of now, though, women are in the clear.

The Side Effects of Not Having a Safe Place to Pump

If the mother doesn’t have the proper time or space needed for pumping, both she and her baby can suffer.

Interrupted pumping can create plugged ducts and reduced supply.

“If an employer does not allow time for regular breaks to express milk from the breasts, and the breast milk is not regularly removed from the breast, the milk supply/milk production will decrease and most likely stop altogether,” says Lesli Gould, an international board certified lactation consultant (IBCLC) in Billings, Montana. “Physiologically, when milk is left in the breasts, the breasts will first become engorged, which means they become overly full of breast milk, and then breast tissue becomes swollen and painfully uncomfortable.”

If the breasts are engorged for a long period of time, the milk ducts can become blocked, which can lead to mastitis, a painful infection that can prevent the mother from being able to nurse. She may also require antibiotics, which can further hinder the nursing process.

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Not having the ability to sit and pump regularly and properly can also cause problems for mother and baby, says Alison K. Hazelbaker, PhD, IBCLC, of Columbus, Ohio.

“Interrupted pumping can create plugged ducts and reduced supply,” she says. “Irregular pumping can also lead to … overall discomfort and leaking, which may cause embarrassment.”

Hazelbaker stresses that these problems can occur because of lack of privacy for pumping, having to pump in a women’s bathroom or similar place, an unsupportive work environment, or a pumping station that is too far away from the person’s office location.

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The mother’s career may also cause an issue. For example, teachers and nurses may have schedules that prevent regular pumping or reduced time to pump.

How Quality of Life is Affected

Those who decide to nurse often do so because they believe it is what is best for their child and themselves. But when the mom can’t provide for her child because she doesn’t have access to a proper pumping situation at work, her quality of life could suffer a major blow.

“Lots of stress for long periods of time can also lower the immune system, leading to more sicknesses,” says Wendy McHale, an IBCLC in Cincinnati. “Many women find that their milk supply will also lower a bit during illness.”

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Because of the problems caused by not having an ideal pumping environment and the issues related to asking for one, many working moms are forced to abandon their dream of nursing their children.

“Some mothers either wean down or seek help to resolve their concerns,” Hazelbaker says of pumping in stressful work conditions. “These issues are one of the main reasons why mothers who return to work outside the home wean earlier. The inconvenience of these challenges just generates so much stress that they give up. Some moms are content to just combine breast milk feeding with formula feeding. Yet some mothers make it work and figure out strategies, including getting HR involved or lobbying for workplace changes.”

How to Make It Work

While it’s true that women deserve to have their nursing needs met while in the workplace, unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. But this hardly means you have to throw away your goal of nursing, however. You may be able to improvise and find a solution that pleases everyone.

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One way is to nurse as often as you can.

“[A mother] should always nurse baby first when reunited and last when parting,” says Hazelbaker. “She can nurse the baby at lunch if her work site is close to where the baby is. She can have the sitter bring the baby to her for lunch. She can add in extra pumpings and manual expression, do power-pumping, and nurse the baby exclusively when not working. If economically able, she can reduce her work hours and spend more time with her baby.”

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You may also have to get a little creative when it comes to making your own nursing opportunities.

“I worked with one mother, a kindergarten teacher who could not leave the room, who simply put up a privacy screen at the back of her room, would go behind to put in her hands-free pump inside her bra, and then would discreetly pump while she was teaching,” says Hazelbaker. “The kids never knew that she was pumping milk for her baby. She did this for over a year.”

Mothers who aren’t able to work out arrangements with their places of employment may begin to develop less milk than they want. And although not every mother is able to, some can increase their milk production by maximizing their nursing time.

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“Each situation will be unique depending on the mother’s health, age of the baby, ability to nurse or pump more, and what the stressful circumstances may be, so this one is not an easy answer and definitely not a one-size fits all,” says McHale. “That being said, for most women, the number one way to make more milk is to remove more milk from their breasts, and remove it a bit more often. This could mean breastfeeding more when at home with the baby, pumping for longer periods of time or more often when at work, or a combination of the two.”

No matter what the outcome of your breastfeeding situation, it’s important to know that you have rights, and can use your voice to express them. Here’s the law again—bookmark it.

You should also know that you tried the best you can with making nursing work, and whatever happens is the best situation you could attain.

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“Some mothers are able to make breastfeeding, working, and pumping work easily and have their babies drink nothing but mother’s milk,” says McHale. “Other mothers may end up breastfeeding when at home with their babies, and doing some pumping while away, but maybe not enough. If they don’t have enough breastmilk they can supplement with some formula here and there.”

“Some breast milk is better than no breast milk,” continues McHale. “It also doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And to those moms I would say, do the best you can with what you’ve got, and know that if you are trying to do the best you can for your baby, then it’s great, even if it’s not your ideal!”

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