What Breastfeeding Mothers Think of Your Stares

Breasts -- they are awesome, the majority of people have them, and they provide lunch for babies.

So why are we as a society still so awkward about them?

Women are put in the impossible position of being told that it is extremely important to breastfeed, while simultaneously getting the message that no one wants to see women do it -- in public or at work. And a lack of support for breastfeeding has very real consequences, for mothers and babies. Doctors recommend that babies are exclusively breastfed for the first six months of life (and that breastfeeding continue through the first year), but employers are only required to give mothers 12 weeks of parental leave. That requires working mothers to pump breast milk for at least three months on the job (and many choose to breastfeed for at least the first year to give their children optimal health benefits). Unfortunately, many employers do not provide working mothers the support they need to give their babies the best nutrition.

Nicole Trunfio for Elle

What The Law Requires.

Since the advent of the Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) in 2010, employers (with at least 50 employees) are now required to provide nursing mothers with a sanitary space to pump (it must have a door and cannot be a bathroom) and a (unpaid) pumping break. It is not required, but many employers also choose to provide a refrigerator where mothers can store their milk .

Why are bathrooms not a suitable place to pump breast milk? Think of it this way: pumping breast milk is basically meal prep. Would you want to prepare your kid's dinner in the bathroom at work? It's also inconvenient for other employees who need to use the facilities. Typically, mothers will need to breastfeed three times a day for about 20 minutes each time. It isn't practical to occupy a restroom for that long. What's worse, if mothers don't breastfeed that often, their supply could decrease. 

Unfortunately, many employers either do not know about these laws or choose not to comply with them. Further, there is currently no penalty written into law, so employers who choose not to comply will only be punished if their employees sue. Many employees choose not to sue, whether it's because of the unwanted hassle, expense, or simply because they do not know their rights. In Utah, they found that 20 percent of women stopped breastfeeding because they couldn't do it at school or work. 

"...the State has a compelling interest in supporting women who choose to breastfeed. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that infants are breastfed for the first 12 months of life. Research shows that breast milk helps babies fight diseases such as asthma, obesity, diabetes, bacterial infections, respiratory illnesses, and childhood leukemia. Breastfeeding offers many health benefits for mothers, as well, providing maternal protection from breast cancer, ovarian cancer, osteoporosis, and type 2 diabetes." -Salt Lake Tribune

Given that doctors have found breast milk to be the best and healthiest nutrition for babies, breastfeeding support for working moms is a public health and nutrition problem that affects everyone, as well as an issue of gender equality in the workplace.

Cultural Attitudes Towards Breastfeeding Make Life Difficult for Mothers.

A waitress in North Carolina was let go recently because her employer did not want to provide breastfeeding accommodations for her. She was told that it was "indecent" for male employers to walk in on her pumping. Yes, the woman feeding her child was the indecent one... not the men who couldn't stop themselves from repeatedly walking in on her. The restaurant says that she was taken off the schedule because they could not accommodate the time she spent off the floor pumping.  A retail worker in Indiana had a similar experience when her employer offered only a restroom for her to pump and then fired her when she refused to use it.

A former commercial airline pilot had to stop flying because there was no way to accommodate pumping while she was on the job. Being a pilot is an intense occupation that takes a lot of training to get into, so it is really unfortunate that women may be forced to chose between their families and their hard-won aviation careers (pilots are not protected by the ACA laws).

It's not just at work. It's anywhere.

Even women who are not at the workplace encounter resistance when feeding their children in public. What those people likely do not understand is that breastfeeding is many children's only source of nutrition, babies need to eat every couple of hours, and even if the child is not present, waiting to pump can be extremely painful for a mother -- as well as lead to a decline or stoppage of her milk production. 

But attitudes are starting to shift, women are starting to win some of their court cases, and culturally, people are beginning to accept breastfeeding as the natural part of life that it is. Supermodel Nicole Trunfio was even photographed breastfeeding her son for the June cover of Australian Elle.  You can help shift attitudes by inquiring about accommodations for nursing mothers at your work place. It might be an easier conversation to have before a new mother urgently needs it. And it's the law anyway. 

We asked one new mother, Amanda, about her experience breastfeeding.

Why is breastfeeding important to you?

Breastfeeding is the best nutrition I can give to Vivienne [Amanda's four-month-old daughter] , so it's one of those things that, if I could, I certainly was going to, and for me, it's been an easy and lovely thing.. . It makes me feel like I am providing for her and taking care of her, we get lots of snuggle time, and I can provide her with comfort. There's no down side...except maybe less sleep in the first few months.

Is it easy to find places to breastfeed or pump? In public? At work?

Finding places to breastfeed and pump has been a mixed bag. I have no issue breastfeeding in public, and I feel like anyone who has a problem with [seeing] it is a strange prude. I'm feeding my kid. If you have a problem with me feeding my kid, you've got some crazy bad issues with women and their bodies. a little different. It is vulnerable and strange and not something I would want someone else staring at, even though it's still giving food to Vivi . Most places I've gone into work have been okay about it, but there have been some weird situations:

On an airplane, I traveled with a little hand pump. I was away from Vivi, but you still have to pump every few hours to keep your milk supply up because otherwise your boobs get sore and it's one boob at a time...which means I was standing in a cramped bathroom for a long time and felt like people must have thought I was having serious bathroom issues because I was gone so long. Also, when I had pumped mid-flight I ended up with a turbulence situation where I couldn't get up and my boobs started hurting big time, and then we landed and got stuck on the tarmac. I was almost in tears and creating my own wet t-shirt contest by the time I could pump again.

Have you ever had trouble at work?

I got into a fight with a dude at [a temporary work space] because he wasn't going to let me use the mother's room because I wasn't a full-time employee. He was clearly a young dude with no clue how biology or food for babies works because he couldn't get why I needed a room to go use my electric pump while working 12-hour days in a space with co-ed bathrooms. Fortunately, a couple of women came to my aid and gave me access to the space I needed. It sucks to have to fight and explain, especially since it's supposed to be protected by the law, but it just feels like one of those things people don't know enough about so they shrug it off as if it is not a necessary thing required for the baby to eat and for me to not be in pain.