New federal breast-feeding law signals shift in workplace culture

University of Kentucky employee Lauren Goodpaster, who is breast-feeding son Max, 8 months, and did the same for Sam, 2, said it helps that UK is accommodating. It introduced a comprehensive breast-feeding program last year.
University of Kentucky employee Lauren Goodpaster, who is breast-feeding son Max, 8 months, and did the same for Sam, 2, said it helps that UK is accommodating. It introduced a comprehensive breast-feeding program last year.

A new federal law requiring employers to make accommodations for breast-feeding mothers will represent a big shift for some Central Kentucky companies because few have comprehensive plans.

Before the law, some breast-feeding women found themselves with no alternative at work but to pump their milk in bathroom stalls.

Support from an employer can make a difference in the life of a new mom. Lauren Goodpaster pumped milk for her son, Sam, now 2, while working at the University of Kentucky, which last year introduced a comprehensive breast-feeding program.

"It's not easy being a working mom when you are trying to breast-feed," said Goodpaster, who is pumping now for her 8-month-old, Max. "Just having the support, having people say that's a great thing you are doing, that was kind of a boost to keep me going on days when it is such a pain."

The U.S. Department of Labor is still finalizing specific accommodation requirements and penalties for those who don't adhere to the new regulations, which are part of the health care reform bill, said Doraine Bailey, a breast-feeding support services coordinator at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.

Accommodations could range from providing a clean room with a locked door for an office worker to allowing an hourly worker at a fast-food restaurant — where space might be scarce — time to use a breast pump in her car.

The federal law and a recently announced pro-breast-feeding campaign by the U.S. surgeon general reinforce the health benefits of breast milk for infants. Children who are breast-fed are sick less often, which means new mothers lose fewer days at work, Bailey said. According to the National Center for Women's Health, nursing mothers are half as likely to miss work with a sick child compared to women feeding their babies formula.

Kentucky's breast-feeding rates are among the lowest in the nation, with about 59 percent of new mothers breast-feeding, according to state health statistics. The national rate is 75 percent.

The law will help make discussion about breast-feeding easier to broach in the workplace, said Lexington lactation consultant Janie Weatherford. It can be uncomfortable to talk about breast-feeding with your supervisor, she said, and even employers helpful to breast-feeding moms tend to get less so over time.

"People might be really open to in the first few weeks or months," Weatherford said, but as the months stretch on, the attitude becomes "surely you are not still doing that?"

The stress related to finding a place to pump can cause some mothers to quit prematurely or constrict their milk supply to the point breast-feeding is impossible, she added.

Some Kentucky employers are moving ahead with plans to accommodate breast-feeding. The Louisville Metro Government and four Louisville hospitals recently announced programs to encourage breast-feeding. Louisville will add 13 lactation stations at government work sites; that plan is funded by a $7.9 million federal grant.

The Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government deals with breast-feeding on a departmental level, said spokeswoman Susan Straub.

Lexington's largest employer, UK, began working toward accommodating breast-feeding in 2009 — before the law was in place. The university requires that a private space to pump be available within a 10-minute walk of anywhere on campus, said Robynn Pease, UK's director of work-life. There could be as many as 600 new mothers working at UK at any given time, she said.

The change came about, Pease said, because "we realized that we didn't have any kind of formal structure to support working moms" at UK who want to breast-feed.

Because space on campus is at a premium, she said, "we are simply asking that a clean, private space with a locked door be made available. A bathroom is not acceptable."

In some workplaces, there might be al lactation room. At other times a mom might work it out with her supervisor to use an empty conference room, she said.

Dana Turner, a credentialing specialist at UK Chandler Hospital, said the university offers "everything from soup to nuts" in support of parents, from pre-birth support classes to regular meetings of a working moms support group to keeping some replacement parts for breast pumps readily available.

"If I hadn't had that support," said Thomas, who says she doesn't come from a family that breast-feeds, "I probably wouldn't have been able to continue (to breast-feed) after I started back to work."

Nurses and teachers, because their days are so tightly scheduled, have some of the greatest difficulty in breast-feeding, said Weatherford.

Lisa Deffendall, a spokeswoman for Fayette County Public Schools, said there is no districtwide plan on how to accommodate breast-feeding, but schools support mothers who want to.

Still, it's possible to accommodate a breast-feeding teacher or school staff member, said Lorraine Williams, principal at Millcreek Elementary.

Last year she had three teachers who were breast-feeding. The women worked with their teams so their classrooms were covered for 15 to 20 minutes while they pumped.

"The teams make it work; they cover for the teacher," she said. "Basically, we make it happen. It's more of a mind-set that it is an important thing.

"It's created a collaborative spirit among the teachers. Subconsciously, it's made people realize that it could happen for them."

The support of breast-feeding is so evident, she said, a male custodian even came to Williams with questions about his breast-feeding wife. Millcreek is scheduled for renovations, and Williams hopes to add a lactation room.

Cerise Bouchard is pleased with the new law. She created her business, Mother Nurture, a breast-feeding and natural parenting shop in Lexington, more than four years ago to help mothers find breast pumps, nursing bras and other breast-feeding accessories. She allows her employees not only to pump breast-milk but to bring their nursing children to work.

She sees a lot of work that needs to be done, even educating medical professionals about the importance of breast-feeding. The law is a step in the right direction, she said.

"Anything we can do as a society is important," she said. "It's supporting the health of our children and lowering health care costs."