Pump it up: How to support working mothers

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Elizabeth Newman
Elizabeth Newman

I have not shut up about the mini-fridge.

Over the years, Haymarket Media, the parent company of McKnight's, has upped its match of our 401(k) program, created a mentorship and intern program, and added a day a year for employees to volunteer. These are all things I've benefited from, but what I repeatedly keep talking to my friends about is the mini-fridge that was waiting for me in my office when I returned from maternity leave. I even took a picture of it and sent it around, complete with a gift from Jim Berklan hanging above it.

The mini-fridge is to store the 1,000 ml of breast milk I pump at work every day that I take home to my 4-month-old baby. If you haven't been around a working mother recently, either in your personal or professional life as a long-term care operator or administrator, you may not know the intense pressure to keep up with breastfeeding for at least six months. I strongly believe that every mother should do what's right for her, but I wanted to follow the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines that say it's ideal to provide exclusive breast milk to a child for the first six months, if not longer.

Haymarket, and my supervisors and colleagues at McKnight's, backed me up, and offer lessons about how to support your own employees. So it was no surprise to see the results of a new study this week from Michigan State University and Texas Christian University. It said the more support women receive from their colleagues, the more successful they are in believing they can continue breastfeeding. Co-worker support has a stronger effect than support from friends or family, researchers found. It's an important lesson to take back to your facilities. 

"In order to empower women to reach their goals and to continue breastfeeding, it's critical to motivate all co-workers by offering verbal encouragement and practical help," said Joanne Goldbort, Ph.D., RN, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Michigan State, who collaborated with Jie Zhuang at TCU.

The team surveyed 500 working mothers and found 80 had stopped before returning to work. Around that same number had never breastfed, leaving 339 women armed with their breast pumps, laptops and engorged amounts of anxiety as they returned to an office.

Among those women, more than half stopped breastfeeding between the first and sixth month of returning to work.

The study, published in Health Communication, measured thoughts and feelings around co-worker perception and stigma, as well as how uncomfortable the women were about pumping milk at work. Ultimately, the study found that while returning to work was one big reason women quit, receiving colleague support was instrumental to those who continued. More importantly, 15% of women who chose to continue breastfeeding after returning to work did so because co-workers or supervisors directly motivated them to do so.

Which brings me back to the fridge, and lessons to share with other offices or long-term care facilities. The mini-fridge (and a lock on my office door) allows me to easily pump three times a day without having to run to my car, bathroom or conference room across the building, all of which many moms do. Not surprisingly, this allows me to stay efficient — I can whip on my hands-free bra and keep working, whether it's writing, editing or partaking in a conference call.

Granted, many of your working mother employees likely do not have their own office. That's where offering a “mother's lounge,” or lactation area, becomes critical, along with allowing them time to pump. We all know that it's not uncommon for workers to skip their breaks, or for top-level executives to have back-to-back meetings. Planning in advance  — allowing your workers to take the breaks they are entitled to at specific increments and supporting executives who block out time on their calendars — will pay off for you as an administrator.

That's because there's a business case for breastfeeding, covered, literally, in the "The Business Case for Breastfeeding." As I wrote in 2013, you likely don't want to run afoul of laws that allow breastfeeding at work. But more specifically for long-term care, you face an increasingly competitive market for clinical staff, especially certified nursing assistants, nurses and other professions dominated by women. If you don't have a private and hygienic lactation room, it's time to ask why. Like me, most mothers keep on working through these sessions  — after all, we have to be efficient so that we can actually arrive home before our babies fall asleep.

Keep in mind that not every working mother is going to feel comfortable bringing this up with you or another supervisor, much as not everyone would want to gab about their mini-fridge filled with breast milk in a national magazine. But you can set up employees for success by speaking up for breastfeeding coworkers, researchers agree.

"If women know that co-workers and supervisors will support them in their breastfeeding efforts, it can make a big difference," Goldbort said. "It really takes a village to breastfeed a baby."

Follow Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman @TigerELN.

Daily Editors' Notes

McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Marty Stempniak.