If you’ve just had a baby, the decision whether to breastfeed is a very personal choice — and one that may be complicated to schedule, particularly if you’re returning to work.
Yet there are significant risks if you don’t breastfeed, says Leigh-Ann O’Connor, a board-certified and private practice lactation consultant and La Leche League leader. “Women are intelligent and they can make an informed decision,” she says. Yet many women may not be aware of the medical reasons for breastfeeding. “Nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings,” she says, “but … it’s riskier for your baby and for your health to not breastfeed.”
A mother who breastfeeds is less likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer and postpartum depression, O’Connor notes, while babies who breastfeed are not as likely to develop type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease later in life, or to need orthodontics. Breastfeeding also enhances your connection with your child, and — perhaps as a result — it helps a baby’s cognitive development. Babies who breastfeed have a 2-to-7-point higher IQ, on average, than those who do not.
“Other health issues, we don’t skirt around,” she says. But “once people hear that, a lightbulb goes off, and it makes more sense,” O’Connor says. “People understand that it’s like medicine.”
That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in today’s two-income families. There may be obstacles to surmount, she explains: “Is it hard? Is it easy? Is her pump working? What’s [a mother’s] history — was she ever assaulted? ... It’s so loaded. It’s not just black and white.”
Barriers may be mechanical — say, figuring out just how to pump effectively on a schedule that works for you and your baby (see O’Connor’s site for tips). Or they may be job-related: negotiating with your employer time and comfortable conditions to pump. Either way, O’Connor says, “it is such an important issue, because most women are working these days outside of the home, and probably the biggest barrier to breastfeeding is separation of mother and baby.”
If you’re thinking about how to broach the topic of pumping at work, know that the 2010 Affordable Health Care Act requires employers with 50 or more employees to have a private space that’s not a bathroom set aside where mothers can pump. (For state-specific laws, check this helpful U.S. map, clickable by state, from advocacy group Legal Momentum.)
Unfortunately, the law applies only to hourly employees, not to those who are salaried. Even if the law does apply to you, O’Connor says, “laws are one thing, but the reality of the culture in which women work is another.”
She suggests folding requirements for pumping into the initial announcement of your pregnancy. “Women have this tendency to ask permission,” she says. But rather than do so, “a lot of women who have great success say, ‘Hi, I’m going to be having this baby, so I’ll be out of work for 12 or 16 weeks, and when I come back, I’ll be pumping. I noticed we don’t have a pumping room, so can we get a shoji screen or dedicate an office or an area that’s not a bathroom for me?’”
Be sure to let your employer know it will help you keep a regular work schedule because your child is less likely to be sick. You might even create a support group for working moms to raise awareness and foster acceptance, O’Connor suggests.
Most important: don’t be deterred by other people’s discomfort. “A mother just has to … own it and not apologize,” she says. If other people are uncomfortable, they can leave the room. “Once people get it out there and go, ‘Oh, I have these rights,’ then we’re going to be more of a breastfeeding culture.”
For moms who are considering pumping when they return to work, here are O’Connor’s helpful tips.
April 24, 2016
Janet O’Dell, RN