4 Steps to Successful Breastfeeding in Nontraditional Jobs

Approximately 25 percent of women in America work in what are considered nontraditional jobs. These include the military, firefighters, police officers, airlines or trades jobs. These professions have traditionally seen lower rates of breastfeeding continuation after women return to work. Why is that? Robyn Roche-Paull, RN, BSN, IBCLC, and recent speaker at the Edwardsville Region Breastfeeding Task Force conference titled Not Your Mama’s Breastfeeding: Modern Challenges, has made it her passion to help mothers in these professions continue to breastfeed when they return to work. 

While you may have heard the expression “any breastmilk at all is good for the baby,” breastfeeding benefits have been found to be dose-dependent. This means benefits of breastfeeding continue and even increase over time, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages women to breastfeed exclusively for six months, and then with complementary foods up to one year and beyond. In nontraditional jobs, a mere 13 percent as opposed to 49 percent in traditional jobs continue to breastfeed until their baby is 6 months old. 

It is estimated that women in these nontraditional roles make up about 47 percent of the workforce and that 61.8 percent of these women have children ages newborn to 3 years, many of whom stop breastfeeding long before their intended goal. 

Organizations such as the AAP, Centers for Disease Control and even the U.S. Surgeon General have come out with strong statements urging breastfeeding for the health of the general population. However, lactation laws and policies vary by state and organization, causing great variations in how much time and what accommodations women are afforded to continue to breastfeed when they return to work. 

The bottom line is: A mother must be given reasonable time, at regular intervals, and a private place to continue to remove milk when she is separated from her baby. If she does not remove milk, her supply will go away and breastfeeding STOPS. 

In nontraditional jobs, a mother may be asked to pump her milk in the back of an ambulance with her partner while they are riding between calls on a 24-hour shift, or in the lavatory of a plane while her copilot manages the flight during a storm, in a helicopter on a fuel stop on the tarmac during a long training flight lasting eight or more hours, or in a storage closet on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier between refueling jobs. She may be given 15 minutes to remove her police uniform, gun, flak jacket and then hook up pump, remove milk, clean her pump, find a place to store her milk, put everything back on, all while needing to be ready to respond to a call that could come in at any minute. Seems pretty impossible, doesn’t it! 

Breastfeeding can be one of the most rewarding times in a mother’s life and provides her baby with optimal food for healthy growth and development, not only in childhood but throughout both of their lives. Doesn’t every mom and baby deserve that?

There are some laws such as the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (Section 4207) that address breastfeeding in the workplace, but this law applies only to companies with 50 or more employees and is not very specific about what accommodations are to be provided. Twenty-three states have also adopted breastfeeding laws, but there is still work to be done. Read more about the Illinois and Missouri breastfeeding laws here. While this legislation is helpful, there are still employers who have no idea about these laws and have not put steps or finances toward providing this support to breastfeeding employees in traditional roles, much less nontraditional roles. 

Along with break time, a location and privacy to pump, mothers who work in nontraditional jobs face additional challenges because most of these workplaces are male dominant. If they can manage to sneak a break or find a spot, they may face harassment, ridicule and judgment for not being able to fulfill their job duties in an equivalent way to their male counterparts. They may sacrifice promotions or leadership roles due to a perceived lack of dedication or teamwork while on the job. 

Is it even possible with all of these obstacles? Where do Moms start? 

  1. Get informed before you have your baby. 
    • Do some research to see what you will need in order to continue to pump when you return to work. See what is currently available at your place of employment, and make a list of the accommodations or items that will be needed to support you to continue to breastfeed. If you work in a nontraditional job, don’t be surprised at the look on your supervisor’s face because you may be the first brave mother who has posed these questions. 
    • The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has developed a great guide called Easy Steps to Supporting Breastfeeding Employees that will have a wealth of information for employers and simple steps for providing a space and accommodations for nursing mothers. 
    • You will also need to make a specific list of needs based on the type of work you do. After all, no one knows your job better than you do! 
  2. Make a plan and stay committed to continuing to breastfeed and share it with your place of employment and supervisor. 
    • Need information for your employer about the law? The Wage and Labor Divisions Fact Sheet #73: Break Time for Nursing Mothers provides a great summary of federal requirements and can be downloaded here as a PDF to share with your supervisor or place of employment. 
    • Let them know your breastfeeding goal and that nursing will not last forever. Tell them exactly how much of your time it will require. Write down your sample work schedule with pumping breaks included. 
    • Ask for their support to get other staff on board and to act quickly to address any negative comments or harassment from coworkers that may occur. 
    • Put up a simple flyer in your place of work to educate others on why this is so important. Most issues with coworkers stem from a lack of education or myths surrounding breastfeeding. This Breastfeeding Fact Sheet provides a great summary of the benefits for baby, mom and the population at large. 
  3. Find sources of support that can help you navigate the process and stay committed. 
    • The Breastfeeding in Combat Boots website and book are a great resource and support for those serving in the armed forces and other nontraditional jobs. 
    • The Breastfeeding Resource Center has tips and advice with great links on making breastfeeding work in a nontraditional setting. 
    • Find a pumping buddy. Maybe a mom who works with you or in a similar job who has or is pumping and breastfeeding. Research shows you can keep each other motivated, share tips, and that you will both breastfeed longer than a mom going at it alone. 
    • Find a local support group or lactation consultant can make the difference as well. They can be a great source of motivation and help you navigate the process. 
  4. Be the change! 
    • One committed and motivated, a mom is powerful force. If you get the ball rolling, others will follow. Even if you are able to do it for one month, two months or up to a year, you are giving your baby and yourself a gift that only you can provide. Then get yourself a t-shirt with this quote printed on it – and wear it proudly: I make milk that develops the human brain and immune system … what’s your SUPERPOWER?