A lactation room of one’s own

August is Breastfeeding Awareness Month, and the U.S. Breastfeeding Committee focused the first week on “making a difference for working parents.” Without federal or state-guaranteed paid family leave for all workers, parents making a difficult decision to return to work after childbirth also have to deal with the logistical challenges of breastfeeding while separated from their children. The Virginia Department of Health notes that parents with less than three months of maternity leave report ending breastfeeding earlier than those who receive three or more months of leave.

One resource workplaces can and should offer breastfeeding employees is a private, clean, and safe space for expressing breast milk while at work. This year’s Breastfeeding Awareness Month is the first since Congress passed the PUMP (Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers) Act, which expands nursing workers’ right to private lactation spaces and breaks for pumping in almost all workplaces, and the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act. “Widespread use of these tools will help create an environment where pregnant and postpartum workers can succeed in work and family life balance,” says State WIC Breastfeeding Coordinator Jarene Fleming.

For RHHD, lactation spaces aren’t only a public health recommendation; they’re an important part of our workplace landscape for breastfeeding employees. Small lactation rooms exist at our Cary Street, East Henrico, and West Henrico locations.

Joanna Cirillo is RHHD’s Public Health Nurse Supervisor and mom to Matilda, who will turn one in September. As part of a department funding initiative to make the lactation spaces feel safer and cozier for breastfeeding workers, Joanna spent her final days in the office ahead of maternity leave refreshing the Cary Street room, adding wallpaper to complement the existing milk fridge, warm lighting, and pump cleaning supplies. The most important touch, she says, came from previous employee Stephanie Toney: a bulletin board where nursing parents could post photos of their infants to look at while they pumped (a strategy—like other relaxation techniques—that has proven to increase milk output). Having worked in a maternity clinic previously, she knew that “Such a big transition is so hard, and anything that you or your workplace can do to make the transition back easier and more welcoming [matters]. Obviously, we know breastmilk is good for babies. You will be more productive in a nice space, too—if you’re relaxed and happy and looking at pictures of your baby, it will go better for you.”

While a lactation space should offer privacy and calm for a breastfeeding parent, Joanna says that the room actually helps her feel connected to other moms in the building: “Motherhood is such a unique experience, and you gain so much knowledge and advice from other mothers. When you’re doing anything for the first time, it’s so intimidating, especially a huge thing like birth and then coming back to work. All my other coworkers that had used [the space] had advice: ‘here’s some things that could make it easier, here are some things you can use.” You forget certain parts [of the pump], you have to clean it at work, and it’s all stressful, so it makes it a little bit easier to know you’re all in it together.”

Maybe most importantly, Joanna’s time using the lactation room has helped her reflect on the intersections of her roles as a mom, a colleague, and a public health worker: “Having gone through figuring out breastfeeding, pumping, being a working mom and pumping at work so that my baby gets as much breast milk as they can, it’s so much easier to relate to people when you’ve gone through it yourself. Any public health intervention that we want people to do, having lived experience ourselves just makes it so much easier to say, ‘yep, I remember when I forgot all my pump parts or when baby wouldn’t latch.’ It makes it easier to connect and support people when they’re having problems or help people advocate in their own place of work if they don’t have a safe and clean and private place to pump.”

If you’re a worker currently or soon-to-be breastfeeding, or if you want to support your co-workers returning to work after giving birth, consider the following resources:

  • Rights in the workplace: this fact sheet on the Fair Labor Standards Act (updated to include PUMP) will help you understand who and what is covered, and where to go if a workplace is violating your rights
  • Advocacy support: even knowing you have federally protected rights to things like a clean, private lactation space or breaks to pump, it can feel difficult to talk to a supervisor about what you need. This toolkit on talking to your boss offers suggestions for when and how to have important conversations about workplace accommodations. (In Spanish: Cómo hablar con tu jefe acerca tu extractor de leche materna)
  • Design time! If you have the ability to create or offer input on your workplace’s lactation space, these recommendations will make the room feel friendlier, safer, and more productive for lactating workers.
  • A bigger toolbox: “The whole ethos of being a family-friendly or supportive workplace includes being breastfeeding friendly but extends beyond that,” Joanna says. Helping breastfeeding workers succeed in the workplace might also include other accommodations like schedule changes or uniform modifications. And discussions about how to support workers in the early stages of raising children shouldn’t stop as kids grow.

Joanna knows it can be isolating to feel as if you’re asking for “special treatment” in the workplace, particularly if you’re the only currently pregnant or breastfeeding worker. Remember, she suggests, that “there were people before you and there will be people after you. Even if you don’t know anyone that is going through this exact stage at the same time, there will definitely be people after you who need the service.” When we speak up for the accommodations we need to do our work well, all workers benefit!

Stay tuned as Breastfeeding Awareness Month continues!