Working and breastfeeding is hard. Studies say support from coworkers is key to success.

Breastfeeding can be a challenge all on its own. What happens when you add working to the mix?

Compared with the rest of the industrialized world (and much of the rest of the world, actually), the U.S. makes working parenthood difficult. As the only developed nation with no guaranteed paid family leave, many new parents find themselves having to return to work within a handful of weeks after having a baby.

Image by The DataFace, LLC.


And when you're a breastfeeding parent, that also means having to figure out how to pump breastmilk while balancing job duties. Sounds simple enough — if you've never pumped before. At best, it's a lot of work and not the most fun way to spend a break. At worst, an employer who is exempt from the federal requirements to provide time and space to breastfeed can make it darn near impossible to pump at the office. Even with time and space, some are never are able to pump efficiently.

For many, breastfeeding and working is doable, but difficult. But there's one thing that is proven to make it easier.

When coworkers are supportive, people have greater success with breastfeeding while working.

According to researchers at Michigan State and Texas Christian University, support from colleagues is a major factor in parents feeling confident that they can continue breastfeeding. In fact, surprisingly, coworker support has an even stronger effect than the support of family and friends.

One of the researchers' studies found that around 25% of participants decided to breastfeed while working because their employers created a breastfeeding-friendly environment. And about 15% said that direct support and motivation from supervisors and coworkers inspired them to keep breastfeeding after going back to work.

The study data showed that simply going back to work was enough to make many folks decide to stop breastfeeding, but those who chose to continue cited colleague support as a primary factor.

"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, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at MSU, who collaborated in the study. That means accepting that breastfeeders will need extra "breaks," encouraging and supporting them in taking those breaks, and providing a clean, quiet, private space for them to pump.

We've seen progress in the past decade, from laws supporting breastfeeders to better breast pumps.

Thanks to provisions of the Affordable Care Act, federal law mandates that employers provide time and a clean place to pump — a place that is not a bathroom. Not all employers are bound by that law, but it's a good start. And recently, the final two states passed laws protecting the right to breastfeed in public anywhere in the U.S.

In addition, technology keeps getting better and better. Those of us who breastfed a decade or two ago had no choice but to use pumps that were basically the human equivalent of a commercial milking machine. While they got the job done, they were cumbersome, uncomfortable, loud, and not particularly dignified.

Now there are pumps that you can wear inside a bra, with no tubes, no electrical hookups, and no bottles connected. I recently found out about this Willow breast pump and was blown away by how much better it is than what I had available when my kids were babies. While on the pricey side, it's whisper-quiet and can be totally hidden inside your clothing, so you could pump while working and no one would ever know. Mind. Blown.

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With more and more working parents in the picture, we have to be creative and flexible when it comes to balancing breastfeeding with work.

There is a lot more America could do to help make breastfeeding easier for working parents. But until we catch up with the rest of the world in providing guaranteed paid leave, we'll have to approach breastfeeding and working as individual employees, employers, and coworkers.

The more we can voice our support for breastfeeding and make it easier for folks who work to get the time, space, and support they need to pump, the happier and healthier our communities will be.

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