Does an infant belong in the office?

The Washington state Department of Health has instituted a new policy allowing new parents to bring their infants to work, following in the footsteps of more than 180 companies with similar policies. 

Tony Avelar / The Christian Science Monitor
Jenny Guevarra, a loan speicalist, holds her 4 month-old baby daughter Liana Jasmine, during a break at work in her cubicle at Valley Credit Union in San Jose, Calif., in 2008

When Marissa VanHoozer learned that she and her husband were having a baby, she expected to face the decision that many new mothers have to make: should she try to ensure financial stability by returning to work early, or be there for all of her son’s first milestones by staying home? 

But when the time came, Ms. VanHoozer didn’t have to choose. As the guinea pig of the Washington State Department of Health’s new “Infant at Work” policy, she was able to bring baby Gavin into work with her. 

“Without this program, I would not have been there for all of Gavin’s ‘firsts,’” VanHoozer said in a news release, noting that the policy “made it possible for me to be with my son … while continuing to help with our family budget and my career progression by returning to work.”

The policy, which went into effect July 1, allows parents to bring infants age six weeks to six months into the office with them. The department said it expects the program to benefit babies, parents, and the employer. 

"We know bonding of infants with their parents during the earliest stages of life can have positive long-term effects," Secretary of Health John Wiesman said. "This early bonding is crucial to a baby's healthy brain development, and it's good for Mom, Dad, or guardian.”  

Mr. Wiesman also cited easier breastfeeding, which he says “improves lifelong health,” as another benefit, adding that the policy “allows new parents to bring their whole selves to work.”

The health department joins the ranks of more than 180 companies with similar policies, according to the Parenting in the Workplace Institute (PWI). These programs have been successful in cubicle, office, and retail environments, with companies ranging in size from three to 3,000 employees. 

Carla Moquin, president of PWI, says the most common fear of organizations considering an infant-at-work policy is that the babies will cry, creating a disruptive work environment.  

“They picture the screaming-baby-on-the-airplane scenario,” Ms. Moquin told Bloomberg. “But on a plane, you’re locked in. No one ever tries to help you ’cause they don’t know you.” 

She explained that screaming isn't usually an issue because the parent can tend to their child’s needs right away and whisk them off to a separate room if necessary.

Another concern about these programs is that parents will get distracted and underperform in their work. There is some validity to these worries: Parents are about 70 to 80 percent as productive with their baby present, Moquin told The New York Times

However, many companies say the reduced productivity is worth it, since parents are more likely to return to work if they can bring their babies, resulting in lower turnover costs. 

“Companies, in fact, report significant increases in loyalty and retention when they offer this program and sometimes productivity gains – not only by motivated parents bringing babies to work but also by the happier co-workers enjoying the babies' presence,” writes Nanette Fondas, co-author of The Custom-Fit Workplace, for The Atlantic.

Gay Gaddis, CEO of advertising agency T3, argues that her company’s baby program has in fact made new parents less distracted than they might be if their child was at daycare.  

“In our experience, having the baby in the office actually eases the stress of worrying about how the baby is doing somewhere else,” writes Ms. Gaddis in a Forbes op-ed.  “It also gives new parents a built-in support system of coworkers, willing to scoop up a baby if mom or dad needs to jump into a meeting.” 

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