Breastfeeding Accessibility Isn’t Just About Babies — It’s a Women’s Health Issue
After she returned from maternity leave, NYPD officer Simone Teagle says she faced backlash from coworkers every time she took a break to pump breast milk. To avoid criticism and unsanitary pumping conditions — Teagle says she was forced to pump in the bathroom or a dirty women’s locker room — she only pumped when her breasts became unbearably full. After developing a painful breast infection, Teagle sued the city for failing to provide a private, sanitary lactation space, a violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act.
It’s common knowledge that breastfeeding, when possible, is often the healthiest way to feed a baby. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breast milk as the sole source of nutrition for a child’s first six months. But less commonly discussed is how breastfeeding also benefits moms: Studies show that women who breastfeed are less likely to develop postpartum depression.
But lack of lactation support, both in the workplace and in general, can create obstacles in the feeding process, leading to potentially negative health outcomes for both moms and babies. For moms, the emotional toll may be even greater: Paige Johnson, MD, an OB/GYN at The University of Tennessee Medical Center, says that women who experience higher stress levels tend to struggle more with breastfeeding, and without proper social support from employers, family, and care providers, they’re much more likely to quit altogether.
Teagle says other women at the NYPD have faced similar problems. “I know there are other women who have dealt with the breast pump issue,” she told New York Post. “Most of them just totally stopped breastfeeding. They just stopped breastfeeding because they didn’t want to deal with it.”
For moms who choose to continue breastfeeding, negative attitudes about lactation and lack of appropriate accommodations can affect their ability to generate enough milk to feed their babies.
“Stress affects a woman’s milk supply, so when mothers do not have sanitary places to pump, it’s going to affect her ability to produce milk,” says Jennifer Jordan of Aeroflow Breastpumps. “If she is stretching her normal feeding cycle because she doesn’t have a place where she feels comfortable, that’s going to prevent her from reaching her breastfeeding goals.”
In addition to empowering women to feel confident pumping or nursing in public, Johnson says normalizing breastfeeding starts with educating employers. “If we want a healthy society, we need to provide the absolute best for our children,” she says. “It starts with educating people. If more care providers, employers, and governmental agencies focus on this, I think people will come around.”
For example, while negative perceptions about breastfeeding at work are often based on employer perceptions that pumping mothers are less productive, Jordan says moms with appropriate pumping accommodations actually miss less work because their babies get sick less.
“Accommodating doesn’t mean losing productivity. It actually increases employee retention,” says Jordan. “That breastfeeding mother is going to be out of work less because her baby is healthier. How do we build value to employers and help them understand how they accommodate that mother?”
In the meantime, companies like Mamava, seek to make it easier for employers and public spaces to encourage breastfeeding by furnishing private lactation pods. Since babies often struggle to latch on to a mother’s breast in a chaotic, loud environment, and some women might not feel comfortable being exposed in public, Mamava aims to provide a discreet, convenient solution. Currently, Mamava has 700 pods in public places like businesses, airports, and train stations.
“Pumping feels a lot less natural than breastfeeding, as you need a place to set up and plug in your pump, and you are attaching flanges to your breasts. It’s pretty hard to get into the mind-space for let-down if you are feeling exposed,” Sascha Mayer, Mamava’s CEO, tells Brit + Co.
While many criticize the implication that women should only pump or nurse in private, Mayer believes empowering women with bodily autonomy means giving them a choice about where and how to feed their babies.
“I think what is demeaning to women is to take away their agency for choice,” she says. “There are as many different ways to breastfeed and pump as there are moms and babies. A mom might be fine breastfeeding in public, but her baby might be easily distracted, or she might be out and about with other children and might need a space to contain the family unit.”
Progress may be slow, but Dr. Johnson believes that with a breadth of options for nursing or pumping, women and their families can continue to reap the many emotional, physical, and financial benefits of breastfeeding.
“I would love to see a mom standing right outside a pod breastfeeding waiting on her friend inside the pod breastfeeding,” says Dr. Johnson. “The more that people see that this is what women do — the more you see breastfeeding anywhere — the more it will be normalized.”
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(Photo via Getty Images)