Firms make room for maternal act

Nursing mothers find a slowly growing acceptance of breast-feeding at work

This month, Emily Resa will return from maternity leave to her job as a product engineer for DaimlerChrysler in Detroit. She is among the 2.2 million women with infants under age 1 now in the US labor force – a record high.

But unlike many mothers who work outside the home, she won't have to give up breast-feeding her new daughter.

DaimlerChrysler is one of the growing number of employers who have workplace lactation policies and nursing-mothers' rooms.

"It's great that they have a room," says Ms. Resa. Otherwise, "where would you pump? I wouldn't like pumping in the bathroom."

In fact, that's where many working mothers go to express their baby's milk, a move that can be unsanitary, as well as uncomfortable.

"A lot of women don't have their own offices. Many have cubicles and there's not a lot of privacy. Most women wouldn't feel comfortable pumping in a cubicle," says Kim Cavaliero, spokeswoman for La Leche League International, a nonprofit breast-feeding support group based in Schaumburg, Ill.

Perhaps that explains why 68 percent of women breast-feed their infants after birth, but only 31 percent breast-feed after six months, despite the American Academy of Pediatrics' recommendation that infants be breast-fed for at least a year.

"Woman face social ostracism, people not understanding that breast-feeding is a health choice," says Elizabeth Baldwin, an attorney who specializes in breast-feeding and the law, in North Miami Beach, Fla. "Sometimes they find themselves having to choose their job over breast-feeding."

Finding a private place to pump is only one of the many challenges that new mothers face when they return to work. They also may be forced to confront misinformed co-workers whose reactions vary from indifference to harassment.

"Our society sexualizes women's breasts," says Ms. Cavaliero, so it makes some people uncomfortable, even when the woman isn't pumping in front of them. "Most women breast-feed in a very discreet manner."

If a co-worker makes a derogatory comment about pumping, Cavaliero suggests, "Say 'I'm pumping for my child's nutrition.' Try to educate the person. If the person is going to be ignorant and rude, and education doesn't work, talk to the supervisor."

Corner-office concerns

For some women, it is the supervisor who is not supportive.

Part of that disapproval may stem from concerns about how long it will take for an employee to pump. Representatives at companies with lactation programs say some supervisors worry that the employee will be gone for an hour at a time. But, experts say, that's inaccurate. "Most women take two 15-minute breaks plus lunch to pump," says Baldwin.

Even so, it is sometimes difficult to find time away from the job to pump. Factory workers find it next to impossible to take unscheduled breaks, while white-collar workers struggle with other time conflicts, such as meetings.

If a meeting is scheduled during the time an employee would normally be expressing milk, she faces a dilemma: miss the meeting or disrupt her baby's milk supply. If a woman doesn't express milk regularly, her milk supply decreases and, eventually, dries up.

In June, Sharon Cebulski, a fifth-grade teacher at Glengary Elementary School in Commerce Township, Mich., gave birth to her second child. She is worried about how she will continue to breast-feed once the school year begins again in September.

"With my first baby, when I went back to work, he got formula in the daytime [because it was difficult to pump breast milk at work]. But I was still able to breast-feed him when I came home from work and at night," says Ms. Cebulski. "But with this baby, I don't know. In October, I am supposed to go to an overnight camp with my students for a week. I don't know how I am going to continue breast-feeding."

Making 'reasonable efforts'?

Legislation in six states, including Minnesota and California, already require employers to make reasonable efforts to provide unpaid break time and a room where employees can express milk.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D) of New York has introduced a bill which would clarify the Pregnancy Act of 1978 to protect a woman's right to breast-feed or express milk during the workday, but it is still being reviewed in a House subcommittee.

Still, only 16 percent of employers provide "lactation rooms," according to a 2001 benefits survey by the Society for Human Resource Management.

Breast-feeding advocates say businesses cannot afford not to offer help.

"What some companies don't realize is that setting up a lactation room is really good for business," says Cavaliero. "Mothers and babies are healthier, that saves on insurance and [means] fewer absent days for the mom. More mothers return to work after having their baby, so the company doesn't have to recruit and train new employees."

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