Breastfeeding is not compatible with the American workplace

I am “supposed” to exclusively feed my daughter breast milk until she is six months old. After that, most of her nutrition should still come from breast milk with solid foods added gradually until she is one year old. That’s according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. The World Health Organization recommends continuing to breastfeed until the child is two years old. Breastfeeding is recommended for a long list of health reasons including reduced rates of obesity, asthma and type 2 diabetes as well as likely reduced risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS). Why wouldn’t you breastfeed if you can?

But how many working mothers do you know who breastfeed their one year olds? How about six months? Unless you have an interest in this (or are a breastfeeding mom yourself), you probably have no idea. Breastfeeding is sufficiently stigmatized that (depending on the poll) about half of Americans think women shouldn’t breastfeed in public1. The statistics are dire. Fewer than 40% of babies are breastfed exclusively at three months — fewer than 20% at six months. So far we’ve made it to eight weeks.

The modern workplace and the necessity for most mothers to go back to work (usually for financial reasons because very few employers provide paid leave beyond a few weeks) is a big reason for women to stop or decrease breastfeeding. Unless you work at a surprisingly flexible workplace, you probably aren’t bringing your infant to work with you. You probably don’t have onsite day care that can call you down to feed your infant as needed. Your remaining option is thus to pump breast milk. Most women chose relatively portable electric devices. However, breast pumps are notably inefficient compared to a nursing infant. Even pumping three times in an eight hour shift might not result in as much milk as the infant would eat in that time period (and each pumping session might take up to thirty minutes for decent results).

Until very recently, employers weren’t required to provide places or time to express breast milk2. I’m fortunate in that my employer provided space even before Obamacare required it. Moreover, I have a great deal of flexibility in how I arrange my day and can pump regularly and make up work at other hours (and possibly even do some work while pumping). I still worry that I won’t pump nearly enough to feed my baby while I’m away at work. Keep in mind that I’m lucky. I’ve nearly the best possible situation for a nursing and working mother trying to follow health recommendations.

If you’re thinking I sound stressed about this, you’d be right. Since our health establishment has impractically but strongly recommended that all should breastfeed exclusively, I feel I’ll be a failure if we don’t. If I don’t somehow manage it, then what kind of parent am I? Rationally I know it will be fine if we feed my daughter formula now and then — the health benefits of breastfeeding probably aren’t diminished by occasional supplementation. But I’m angry. If our country truly valued both children’s health and their mothers’ place in the workplace, accommodation of breastfeeding would not be so limited. As it is, even many of the most well-off working mothers are quite obviously not able to keep breastfeeding as long as they should.


  1. Fortunately, my state is awesome. In the state of Washington it is illegal to even ask a nursing mother to leave, use a special room or cover up for breastfeeding her child in any place the public can enter routinely. That covers restaurants, libraries, public transit and more. My answer should anyone ask me to stop or cover up is two part: would you ask me to stop if I was feeding her mushy carrots and did you know that question was illegal?

  2. They still don’t have to pay for those breaks. How many low to middle income workers can afford extra unpaid breaks or more childcare to make up for unpaid time pumping? Imagine pumping enough on minimally required paid breaks that you might need to use for other things like using the toilet or eating.

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