Almost from the moment she receives a smiley face on a pregnancy test, a woman is subject to lectures about the importance of breastfeeding, even though her baby won’t even make an appearance for another nine months.
Pressure to breastfeed–even if it’s based on science and research that is now disputed or best applies to women who don’t have access to clean water or formula–comes at new moms from all directions, from the medical community to the government to the United Nations. The current accepted recommendation is that babies receive breast milk for about the first six months of life, and that mothers continue to breastfeed at least until the end of a baby’s first year.
But corporate America doesn’t make it easy for working moms to achieve their breastfeeding goals. In the U.S., breastfeeding rates drop markedly at three months to 40.7%, when most mothers reach the end of their maternity leave and go back to work. By six months, only 18.8% of mothers breastfeed exclusively. Studies show that working outside the home negatively affects a woman’s ability to breastfeed.
While there are federal laws mandating that companies provide women with the time and space to express milk, these policies don’t necessarily translate into a workplace culture that is supportive of nursing mothers.
“There’s no point having a plush lactation room in your office if women don’t feel comfortable stepping away from meetings or telling their teams that they need to pump,” Joan Ortiz, a lactation consultant, tells Fast Company. “Many new moms already feel bad that they took maternity leave. They don’t want their bosses and colleagues to think they have a bad work ethic by taking too much time off to go to the lactation room.”
So what can companies do to help new moms? Ortiz believes that changing workplace culture begins by having frank conversations with new moms about what their breastfeeding goals are, and how they can achieve these goals while coping with their workload.
She cofounded the Limerick Workplace Lactation Program, which partners with companies to provide employees with practical and emotional support during the entire breastfeeding process. While services like this are not new—Ortiz began to build her business nearly two decades ago—they are still relatively uncommon in the U.S., despite the fact that companies with lactation support programs have been shown to retain nursing employees at a rate of 94%, and that these mothers are able to breastfeed for far longer than the general population. Limerick is one of a small handful of programs in the country, including Babies and Business, and Corporate Lactation Services.
Workplace lactation programs typically assign new moms a personal consultant who can help them develop a strategy for how to accomplish their breastfeeding goals. These consultants are available from the time a woman leaves to give birth, to her reentry into the workplace, to the process of weaning her baby off breast milk; they are also present around the clock for a call should difficulties arise at any stage of the process. Since starting her business, Ortiz has partnered with a wide range of companies, from Universal to Edison to Ernst & Young to the City of Burbank.
With the Affordable Care Act, new moms have access to lactation consulting at the hospital and, if they are lucky, in the weeks after the birth. But these consultants are trained to help women with the physiological problems that new mothers face, such as coping with low milk production, getting the baby to latch, managing cracked or sore nipples, and learning how to use a breast pump.
The issues that arise when women go back to work are of a different ilk altogether. Working mothers may deal with other emotional and psychological issues, like feeling like they are underperforming at work while simultaneously letting their babies down. They also deal with time management pressures as they try to get on a regular pumping routine with work schedules that are often erratic and unpredictable.
“Most of the women who come back to work aren’t even used to taking lunch breaks at the office,” Ortiz says. “They really struggle with taking 15 or 20 minute breaks to go and pump for their baby. Working offsite and traveling makes things even harder, because they need to find the space and the time to pump. For many new moms, work is the biggest obstacle to breastfeeding.” According to research by the National Business Group on Health, 75% of employed women with children under one year old throw in the towel on breastfeeding after only a month.
Over the last year, several companies have launched programs to make it easier for women to breastfeed while traveling for business. IBM announced that it would help moms ship breast milk home to their babies, and a private equity firm, KKR & Co, offered to pay for both a baby and a nanny to fly with mothers on business trips. But these policies don’t do women any good if they feel like they can’t take advantage of them for fear of looking unprofessional to their clients or colleagues, or if the stress of their demanding job makes it hard for them to produce adequate milk flow.
Ernst & Young (EY), which has had a lactation support program since 2006, has found it a useful tool to help recruit and retain talented female employees, signaling a corporate culture that is warm and supportive towards working parents. “You’ve got to have a culture that enables employees to use the benefits and services that you provide them,” Maryella Gockel, Ernst & Young’s flexibility strategy leader, tells Fast Company. “This program shows that we acknowledge that nursing and also being a full-time employee is challenging.”
Smitha Hahn, a senior manager in EY’s tax practice, has taken the company up on the lactation program over the last year during the process of giving birth to her first son, who is now a year old. Since EY is a national company, there aren’t necessarily many pregnant women or new mothers at any one office at the same time. Hahn, who works in the Detroit office, found it useful to have someone to talk to about the challenges of breastfeeding and coming back to work. “I have my lactation consultant’s home phone number,” Hahn says. “I started talking to her a few days after the birth of my baby, and I still talk to her today, over a year later.”
Right after coming back to work, Hahn was pumping every two or three hours. “From start to finish, by the time you pump and clean up, that’s about half an hour,” she recalls. “I’d start at 10:00, go back to work at 10:30, then be back to pumping at noon again.” Hahn would try to schedule the pumping around meetings and block out her pumping sessions on her calendar, but this was not always possible.
However, Hahn says that the culture of EY, which is vocally supportive of new mothers, made it possible for her to take the necessary time to ease back into work. She felt that it was clear to everybody, from HR to her bosses to her colleagues, that new mothers would need time to breastfeed. “Even the men in our office, or people who don’t have families, understand why women might have to step out of the room for a few minutes to pump,” she says.
Workplace lactation programs are still relatively rare, but there is growing evidence that they are a useful tool for changing organizational culture and retaining women at a time when they are vulnerable to leaving. And it is not always necessary to rely on external programs: the National Business Group on Health, a nonprofit that helps companies navigate their employees’ health care concerns, says that large companies should consider starting their own breastfeeding programs.
The few organizations that invest in lactation consulting for employees tend to be large, professional service companies. However, the women who struggle the most with combining work with breastfeeding are women in low-wage jobs. African-American women, in particular, tend to have lower breastfeeding rates and return to full-time work sooner than their counterparts from other ethnic groups. The National Business Group on Health argues that workplace lactation support is particularly crucial among companies that hire a large number of women in low-wage positions.