April 24, 2000 (New York) -- Along the corridor in the offices of National Geographic Television in Washington D.C., doors would slam shut every day at about noon and three o'clock as up to ten executive moms pumped breast milk in their respective offices. "There was a succession of births in the office," says Jenny Apostol, a supervisory producer at the company, "so we moms formed a kind of ad hoc alliance among ourselves, talking about problems, supporting each other, keeping our stored milk in the office fridge."
This kind of scenario is exactly what the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is hoping for. The organization released a recommendation in 1997 advising mothers to breastfeed their infants for the first 12 months of life. It has been found that breastfed babies have a lower incidence of ear infections, diarrhea, and lower respiratory and other infections.
But working moms banding together for pumping purposes is far from the norm. A recent study of middle-class mothers, published in the July 1998 issue of the American Journal of Public Health, shows that the usual duration of breastfeeding is significantly shorter for working mothers: 16 weeks on average compared with 25 weeks for mothers not working outside the home.
When Working Moms Meet Corporate America
Clearly there are inherent difficulties for working mothers who want to continue breastfeeding. For a mother to make time during the workday to pump breast milk -- so that her body will continue to produce a sufficient milk supply for her baby's needs -- requires a big commitment. A mom who wants to breastfeed while working must cart around a portable pump, interrupt her work two or three times a day for about half an hour each time to pump, and properly store and transport her expressed milk.
But even when she has the desire, knowledge, and equipment, corporate culture makes it extremely difficult to follow through with this process, says Rhona Cohen, a lactation consultant and president of MCH Services, Inc., in Los Angeles, a consulting firm that co-ordinates employer-supported lactation programs at nine companies nationwide. "Combining breastfeeding with work is simply not the cultural norm," says Cohen. "To make a lactation program work you need real management support."
Apostol credits the positive atmosphere of her company and a flexible supervisor with her decision to continue breastfeeding when she returned to work five months after her son was born. She was allowed to walk out of meetings in order to pump. "In the end, it's all about getting your job done. If you have a supervisor who recognizes you're there for the long term and can say 'I value you,' that's ideal."
A Place to Pump
In addition to a supportive environment, says Cohen, the company needs to designate a comfortable, clean, private space for an employee to express breast milk. "Bathrooms are not acceptable places," she says.
Peg Rosen, an editor based in New Jersey, whose twice-a-day pumpings enabled her to breastfeed her son for a year, says: "You need a relaxing environment where you can let down your milk supply. And you're banished to a cold, tiled room where people are defecating. It's the most offensive thing I can think of."
Like a few other companies, CIGNA, based in Philadelphia, is taking this issue seriously -- outfitting all of its 200 sites nationwide with lactation rooms. In addition to getting privacy to pump, a woman who joins the company's free lactation program receives the necessary equipment and the phone services of a lactation consultant. Trained in all aspects of lactation management, the consultants are available to talk to a woman before her baby is born, during her hospital stay, and for additional consults as often as necessary. Mothers with questions about difficulties, including sore nipples, infections, or worries about whether the baby is getting enough breast milk, receive the support they need in order to continue breastfeeding.
Support Reaps Benefits
Thanks to CIGNA's efforts, where the lactation program has been in place since 1995, breastfeeding duration rates of their employees far exceed the norm: 72% are breastfeeding six months after the baby's birth and 36% continue to breastfeed at one year.
And payoffs aren't just measured in time spent breastfeeding, but in real dollars and cents. Employees are happier and more motivated, which translates into substantial savings to the company through less absenteeism and reduced medical costs, thanks to healthier babies. Victoria Dickson, director of Working Well, the corporate health program at CIGNA, says the lactation program saves the company $400 per year for each employee who participates.
First-rate lactation programs also exist at companies such as PricewaterhouseCoopers in New York City and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP). The DWP has made breastfeeding a family issue by making wives of employees eligible for a lactation program that Cohen dubs the best in the country.
Unfortunately, companies offering this service are far more the exception than the rule, says Cohen, who estimates that only about 400 companies nationwide have any such program in place. And if the country is going to reach the goal of having 50% of mothers breastfeeding when their baby is six months old, and 25% breastfeeding at twelve months as outlined in the Surgeon General's Healthy People 2010 report, more companies will have to follow suit. "That's what needs to be changed," says Cohen. "Our goal is healthy babies."
Eileen Garred is a senior editor at Child magazine. She lives in New York City and has one daughter.