Have you ever had your rights violated as a breastfeeding woman? Have you ever been told that you cannot breastfeed your baby or cannot pump when you needed to?
A recent news story about a breastfeeding mom in California described her experience in online higher education classes. Her professor said that the camera and microphone on her computer needed to be turned on during the entire course for attendance purposes. When she asked if she could turn them off when she needed to breastfeed her ten-month-old daughter, she was told, “Please do not breastfeed your daughter during class time because it is not what you should be doing. Just do that after class.”
Really! This is not a response you would expect, especially in the middle of a pandemic! You would think her professor would have been a little more understanding given the struggles she is likely facing with competing responsibilities and inadequate support.
This incident happened in a state where the law requires schools to accommodate students with time away from class to breastfeed or express breastmilk without academic penalty. Many other states have similar laws. There are even federal protections.
How many of us breastfeeding moms know our rights?
How many of us are willing to stand up to a professor or an employer who is in the way of us meeting our breastfeeding goals?
As women in medicine, most of us know and understand at least the primary benefits of breastfeeding for our babies and for us. Many of us know how vital breastfeeding can be. Yet, we do not really know how to advocate for ourselves and the families we serve to ensure we have this option no matter the school or work situation.
I have five kids who are now ages between three to fifteen years old. I breastfed at many different points during my life – my last year of undergrad, in medical school and residency, and also while working in busy pediatric practices. I was lucky to be surrounded by a supportive family, co-workers, and administration. But none of my breastfeeding experiences were “easy.” Many times, I had to fight for time in my schedule to pump. And even when that time was built in, it didn’t always happen when it was supposed to. I often had to sneak away to the daycare downstairs at the hospital to feed my baby, who refused to take a bottle. I often had to forego my lunch break, naps, and social time with my co-workers to fit in a pumping session or two. I struggled with low supply at times, with stress, and with mommy guilt. Yet, with a lot of planning, determination, and support, I met my breastfeeding goals.
If you are a breastfeeding woman, here are a few tips for success:
1. Do your research. Know and understand your rights as a breastfeeding and pumping mom. Review “Break Time For Nursing Mothers” under the Fair Labor Standards Act at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/nursing-mothers
2. Talk to your employer. Be open and honest with your employer about your breastfeeding goals and what you need to make them happen while you are at work and away from your baby. Be sure to have a clean, private spot to pump. Add protected time in your day. I know a set schedule isn’t always realistic with every specialty, but try your best to squeeze in those pumping sessions.
3. Set your own breastfeeding goals. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for a year, or up to 1 year when supplementing with complementary foods. And while I wholeheartedly agree with that recommendation, I suggest that you simply set your own realistic breastfeeding goals. Know your situation and what works for you.
4. Don’t compare your breastfeeding journey to anyone else’s. I know how easy it is to read the blogs and social media posts about women with abundant breast milk supply, with their chubby babies, and feel bad that you’re not as “successful.” Own your journey!
5. Reach out for help. Even as a woman educated in medicine, you may not know everything there is to know about breastfeeding. That’s Ok. Talk to close friends, family members, or co-workers who have balanced working and breastfeeding, and ask for advice. Reach out to a lactation consultant for help with creating your breastfeeding/pumping schedule or with any other breastfeeding issues that may arise.
We know the benefits of breastfeeding. As women in medicine, it is essential for us to not just talk about them but to also work hard at reaping those benefits for ourselves and our babies, too!
Petra McEwan, MD, is a practicing Pediatrician and Lactation Consultant in South Florida, where she lives with her husband and five kids. Her website is https://www.wifeymommydoc.com, where she helps working women to find balance in their busy lives. She can be followed on Instagram and Facebook @wifeymommydoc.