For a new mother, maternity leave never seems to last long enough. In addition to being separated from her newborn baby every day, a working mother who breastfeeds has another hurdle to overcome. A mother will become engorged if she does not release breastmilk, and most workplaces do not allow for bringing babies to work. Millions of working mothers have been pumping breast milk while on the job for decades, but they have not done so without obstacles. Some businesses frown upon the practice of breastfeeding at work.  Even in the most accepting of settings, breastfeeding at work is difficult. What are a mother’s rights when it comes to breastfeeding at work, and what can she do to make the process easier on herself?

Know your rights

As of 2010, the Fair Labor Standards Act protects the rights of breastfeeding mothers. Breastfeeding at work is a right, not a privilege. The Act protects a mother’s right to breastfeed at work for a full year after the baby is born. Mothers have the right to take a break each time they need to pump milk. While many mothers try to schedule their pumping within the break times they are already allotted, businesses are legally required to allow a mother to take extra breaks if she needs to pump at an odd time. Companies are not required to pay the mother for extra breaks, but a mother is entitled to compensation for nursing breaks if they fall under the time restraints she would be paid for in a normal situation. For example, if a company always pays employees for one fifteen-minute break per shift, the company is required to pay a nursing mother for her fifteen-minute break even if she uses that time to pump. In the same scenario, a nursing mother who takes three fifteen minutes breaks, all for pumping, in one shift, would not necessarily be compensated for the two additional breaks.

It is the responsibility of the business to staff adequately so that a mother can receive coverage to be able to pump whenever necessary. An employer cannot deny an employee a nursing break due to being short-staffed. Just as a business is required to find a substitute for a mother during maternity leave, the business is required to keep the possibility of frequent breaks in mind for a mother who has recently returned to work. There is one exception to this rule. Businesses that have less than fifty employees and that prove that granting a mother breaks for breastfeeding will cause an undue hardship on the business are exempt from following this section of the Fair Labor Standards Act. 

Mothers are also legally entitled to a private area to pump, and the bathroom is a legally unacceptable area. The law considers it unsanitary to pump in a bathroom. Although businesses are not required to have a special mother’s room, there must be some setup where a mother can pump without anyone seeing her or walking in on her. It is acceptable for a business to provide an opaque screen, blinds, or some other temporary means of giving the mother privacy rather than giving her a special room.

Who to talk to

Although breastfeeding at work is a legally protected right, it is wise to have a conversation about how the job will accommodate. Depending on the hierarchical structure of your work environment, this important matter can be discussed with a direct manager, a department manager, or human resources. If managers refuse to uphold a mother’s legal rights, human resources is a great resource. If a company refuses to uphold a mother’s right to breastfeed at work, the federal Office On Women’s Health can provide guidance. 

Discuss what kind of private facilities will be provided for breastfeeding at work. Present a plan for the times breastfeeding will occur but make it clear that a mother’s body is the determining factor in when she will need to breastfeed. A mother should carefully consider her personal needs beforehand so that she can properly answer any questions that may come up in this discussion. 

Prepare yourself

Mother’s often do not have a need to use a breast pump before going to work, but it is important to practice with one before it is needed at work. Some breast pumps are extremely complicated, and a mother may already be frustrated be she is having to take frequent breaks. The pump is one that can be kept in a compact, sterile case and can be cleaned easily. Being familiar with the process beforehand makes breastfeeding at work less stressful.

Consider clothing as well. While button-down shirts give easy access to breasts, some lighter fabrics can highlight stains from leaking milk. If a mother has a private room with a locked door, she might be fine wearing a dress, which will require disrobing to pump. A mother who will pump in a designated cubicle, for example, may choose not to wear a dress. Each mother should determine what works best for her. 

Unfortunately, mothers should also prepare for the workplace animosity that may occur when she breastfeeds at work. Despite the legal requirements, some managers are hostile towards breastfeeding at work because of the perceived loss of productivity. Fellow employees can also resent the extra breaks.

Breastfeeding at work presents several internal and external challenges, but keep the end goal in mind. The health of the baby and mother are at stake. Educate others and advocate for the right to feed your child.