Breastfeeding and pumping are hard enough when you're home, but it is extra challenging when you're trying to balance your baby's feeding schedule with your office schedule. For nursing mamas, the silver lining of working from home due to COVID-19 is the freedom to pump and feed as needed, and without worrying about what colleagues think or whether someone is going to walk in on you mid-pump.
A new survey, conducted in May and June 2020 by Medela and Mamava finds more than 40% of moms are more committed to breast milk feeding their babies because of COVID-19, and 1 in 5 moms expect to breastfeed or pump longer than they initially planned due to the virus. The 53% of moms who plan to return to work when offices reopen, however, are also worried about what will happen to this commitment when they can no longer be home with their babies.
The moms surveyed cite the health and immunity benefits of breastmilk as the reason why COVID-19 made them even more committed to breastfeeding, and 1 in 3 moms plan to talk to their employer about making breastfeeding in the office easier when the office reopens. Almost half of the moms who plan to keep breastfeeding/pumping when work resumes say they are uncertain about the safety and sanitary standards of their workplace pumping areas.
The top three improvements moms surveyed want their workplace lactation spaces to include:
- Sanitation supplies available inside and outside the lactation space
- A clearly published and adhered to cleaning and sanitization process
- A dedicated space where pumping is the only allowed activity
Mothers have so much to worry about right now, they should not have to worry about this. They should already have this.
It's been more than a decade since federal guidelines were implemented to ensure nursing mothers have the time and space to pump at work, but as Motherly has previously reported, many mothers still find it extremely challenging to maintain a pumping schedule in the workplace.
A recent study out of the University of Georgia showed that while most women report having access to private spaces and break times for pumping there are still significant "gaps in access to workplace breastfeeding resources" and the researchers recommend employers take action to reduce breastfeeding disparities.
"We know that there are benefits of breastfeeding for both the mother and the infant, and we know that returning to work is a significant challenge for breastfeeding continuation," says Rachel McCardel, a doctoral student at UGA's College of Public Health and lead study author. "There is a collective experience that we wanted to explore and learn how can we make this better."
The challenges of breastfeeding before COVID
There is a lot of pressure on mothers to exclusively breastfeed, but nearly half of mothers feel like they must make a choice between breastfeeding and keeping their job. A baby's mother is the best person to decide whether the infant should be breastfed, formula-fed or both, but it should be her choice. When workplace supports for breastfeeding are not in place many mothers feel like they don't have a choice at all.
Public health campaigns and social norms reinforce breastfeeding as the best choice, but a recent survey from Areoflow found that 1 in 3 people (31%) "do not believe employers should be required to provide a lactation room" but at the same time, 90% of those surveyed stated that they believe women should be allowed to pump at work.
For too many women, those contradicting messages mean that pumping at work is an uncomfortable experience, something they need to do nearly in secret. It's an example of the many ways in which mothers are supposed to parent as though they don't work but pretend they aren't parents when at work.
Calling for change in a post-COVID world
Half the states in America explicitly protect the rights of nursing parents in the workplace, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, and federal law also provides protections to nursing workers under the Affordable Care Act. Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act—but millions of working mothers are not covered by those protections, and the new research out of the University of Georgia's College of Public Health suggests that even mothers who are need more support from their employers.
Heather Padilla is an assistant professor at UGA's College of Public Health and the co-author of the study. She recommends employers "designate a person who is responsible for making sure that women who are preparing for the birth of their baby understand what resources they have available to them when they return to work," she said.
Supervisors or HR directors could fill this role, and would fill a gap between company policy and personal experience. Padilla and McCardel found that many women "said they hadn't expected to get much help from their employers, and there was a general lack of communication about the resources available to them."
Mamas need to work + babies need to eat
For many American mothers work is not a choice, it is a necessity. Mothers are increasingly the breadwinners for their families and it is very hard for mothers, even those with working partners, to be a stay-at-home parent in 2020.
We need paid family leave and protection from breastfeeding discrimination. We need employers to support working mothers who choose to pump, and we need to reduce the stigmatization of formula feeding.
Mama, we see you, breastfeeding, pumping and mixing bottles of formula. We know you're pumping between Zoom calls and wondering what's going to happen when you're called back to the office.
We see how hard it is and we support you. Know that no matter what your baby is eating—bottled breast milk, formula, or some combination (because breastfeeding doesn't have to be all or nothing)—we know you are working so hard to provide it.
We are calling on your employers to do the work to make that easier.
[A version of this post was originally published January 21, 2020. It has been updated.]