Informal Breastfeeding Support at Work: The “Good” Stories about Bosses and Co-Workers

Alexa Christianson, B.S. Candidate in Public Health,

and

Katherine M. Johnson, Ph.D., Assistant Professor in Sociology, Tulane University

We’ve all heard the “bad” and the “ugly” stories about breastfeeding and work—women pumping in cars and closets, getting walked in on topless (please knock!), or having someone accidentally throw out your breast milk when they clean the communal fridge (why?!). It can be easy to get bogged down by these types of workplace stories. However, the good stories are just as important to share—and they’re more plentiful than you may think. Over the past six years, Dr. Katherine Johnson and her student research assistants have heard a lot of good stories from Louisiana women (as well as bad and ugly ones…) through her Working & Nursing Study.  Here are a few examples of how bosses and coworkers have helped out breastfeeding employees.

 First off, employers can encourage informal flexibility, for example, by allowing breastfeeding employees to adjust their pumping schedules accordingly. One breastfeeding mom in the Working & Nursing Study described her experience working at a local hospital with a small group of employees. While the mom had patient appointments scheduled all day long her coworkers could opt to take an extra appointment to cover for her when she needed to pump. This working, breastfeeding mom would simply return the favor another time when she could. Her employer was on board with this arrangement, and also did not make the mom clock out to pump, even though pump breaks technically do not have to be paid . (Hey Boss, thanks for helping a mom out!). Her coworkers’ willingness to adapt and “take one for the team” allowed this mom to better integrate pumping into her work schedule.

 When a lactation room isn’t physically available, unused or empty space can be repurposed to serve a nursing mother’s needs. Another mom from the Working & Nursing Study worked in a research lab. When she was moved from a personal office into a “community”-style office with six or seven other team members, her team helped her put a table and chair back into the old, unoccupied office to continue using as a place to pump. This was really helpful because the official lactation room wasn’t nearby and would have caused a time crunch to fit pumping in during the workday. Another mom working in an office environment had a similar experience: her employer designated a small multipurpose room for her use to pump (and lock) when needed. That room came with amenities such as two shelves and a small fridge and microwave. One breastfeeding mom who worked (non-stop) as a barista shared that her manager let her use the back office to pump. Her manager was gone during most of her shifts anyways, so the back office was often empty. The privacy of the office amidst a hectic customer-oriented setting gave a time of reprieve for the mom to pump that she may not have had access to otherwise.

These informal arrangements show how bosses and coworkers can really offer practical support to breastfeeding employees. And small acts of support can go a long way in helping employees feel valued and committed to their jobs.

Do you have a story to share about how your boss or coworkers supported you informally? We’d like to hear it!

Dr. Katie Johnson