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Breastfeeding in the Workplace: Balancing Rights With Realities

August is National Breastfeeding Month, a time to protect, promote, and support breastfeeding.  It is generally accepted that breastfeeding has physical and emotional benefits for both child and mother.  For working mothers who cannot breastfeed during the workday, pumping breastmilk is critical to maintain their supply of breastmilk while not physically with their child. But, unless there is the time and space to pump at work, mothers cannot breastfeed their children.  Through the Pregnancy Project, we often hear questions from women who need to address the logistics of pumping breastmilk when they return to work. So, in recognition of National Breastfeeding Month, we have put together this blog post highlighting some of the issues nursing mothers face at work, and some strategies on how to approach them.

New Yorkers have rights to nurse in the workplace. Beyond the right to take break time for pumping, in New York women are also entitled to have a place to pump that is not a bathroom, and a place to store their milk. A Better Balance has created an outline of rights for mothers returning to work while nursing which details the protections nursing mothers have in New York.

Wherever nursing mothers work, it is useful for them to understand their rights, but some situations are slightly more complex to negotiate, which may not be covered by the law. As the recent article, “What It’s Like to Be a Breastfeeding Journalist” highlights, sometimes women who work outside of their office have to deal with the logistics of pumping in a public space, as well as adapting their workspace to be appropriate for pumping. Many women are provided with multipurpose space for lactation, like a conference room or someone else’s office. This is legal, but can be frustrating for the mother, her employer, and possibly her colleagues, who may need to cooperate in granting access to a space for pumping. 

Nursing mothers often find themselves educating the people in their office about the mechanics of breastfeeding and pumping, sometimes leading to situations that are awkward, or even discriminatory. Technically, the employee is protected from their co-workers’ discomfort around breastfeeding, since supervisor or co-worker comments about breast feeding and pumping could create a hostile work environment under applicable antidiscrimination laws. But, practically speaking, when new mothers return to work, they are probably more focused on getting through the work day and getting home, and are not looking to be cast in the role of a breastfeeding advocate.  Still circumstances may lead to the employee looking into workplace policies and legal options to protect the right to breastfeed.

Normalizing pregnancy and breastfeeding in the workplace (and in public, generally) is an ongoing cultural shift. New parents will be well-served by understanding their rights before returning to work, so they can start a conversation about the mechanics of what they will need (putting break time on the calendar, figuring out where to pump and store milk) in advance of returning to work.  

If you are interested in advocating for or learning more about breastfeeding, the United States Breastfeeding Committee is a useful resource. If you find yourself being discriminated against in the office for pumping -- or just for being a nursing mother --you can make an appointment with our firm to evaluate your legal options.