Commentary: Give Nursing Moms a Break at the Office

By Diane Brady

The Japanese screen in my glass-enclosed office gives the place a sort of geisha-girl feel. But that beats the Old World-peasant vibe it had when I donned a shawl and crouched over a breast pump--or the harem look when I simply taped the shawl to the window. With no privacy in the ladies' room, I use my office to pump milk for my eight-month-old son, Elliott. Then I bag the bottle and store it in the staff refrigerator.

Aside from the one time a cleaning woman burst in on me, pumping milk at work has been easy because I just close the door. But that's not all you need. Kati Haney of Chapel Hill, N.C., had her own office but had to endure her male boss calling out "moooo" when she shut the door. Others recount stories of crouching in toilet stalls, suffering razzing, or even being fired for pumping on the job.

NEW LAW. In many cases, there's little women can do. The U.S. is one of the few developed countries with no mandatory breaks for nursing workers, according to the International Labor Organization. Bucking the trend is Illinois, which became one of the few states to require such breaks with a new law signed on July 12. Other states are only just getting around to protecting a woman's right to nurse in public. Just mention the word "breast-feeding" in the average U.S. office, and colleagues may run for cover.

Companies shouldn't be so squeamish. The U.S. Surgeon General and the American Academy of Pediatrics have identified low breast-feeding rates as a serious public health concern. One-third of women never start, and most stop after returning to work--as more than half of women with infants do. Only one in ten working mothers nurses for the recommended year. This despite mounting evidence of breast milk's superiority over formula for reducing allergies, obesity, childhood cancer, and other diseases--not to mention lower rates of some cancers for the mother.

A big part of the problem is that employers often make it tough for working women to nurse. Roughly 7% of U.S. companies now provide designated rooms to pump. If you don't pump regularly, you stop producing milk, and nursing is no longer an option. Corporate America makes big noises about the importance of retaining women. But one reason female workers flee large corporations is their inability to balance work and family once they give birth.

Accommodating nursing is a small step toward making that juggling act a bit easier. The payoff is fewer sick days, increased satisfaction, and lower turnover among mothers on staff. CIGNA Corp. (CI ) says its four-year-old national lactation program, with about 500 participants a year, or a third of its returning mothers, saves more than $300,000 a year in health costs and has led to a 77% drop in lost work time compared with other new moms.

So why do so many large companies ignore the issue? For one thing, most are run by men who may find the topic embarrassing. Ronald K. Beam, vice-president of engineering consultancy RETTEW Associates Inc. in Lancaster, Pa., admits he was unnerved when a worker said she wanted to pump. Brushing aside worries that others might be uncomfortable, he bought a fridge for about $800, plus installed an electrical outlet in the ladies' room.

Ideally, such support should amount to more than a new plug. It should also include consultants, manager training, and classes, along with private places to pump. Eastman Kodak Co. (EK ) takes the extra step of providing pumps to each nursing mom on staff. Mattel Inc. (MAT ) has covered the cost for traveling employees to courier their breast milk home. Even formula maker Nestle USA Inc. (NSRGY ) has a lactation program, which is becoming more popular despite free formula coupons. An added benefit: Pumping at work helps me feel close to my son while we're apart during the day. For a short, sweet period of motherhood, what's best for baby can also be a boost for the bottom line.

Associate Editor Brady plans to lend her screen to other returning moms.

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