Supporting a Breastfeeding Co-worker

Medela Metro Breast PumpBreastfeeding in America is on the rise, and more women are breadwinners than ever before. Put those two things together, and you have a lot of women across the country who are pumping breast milk at work every day. At some point, you are very likely to have met or meet one of these women as a co-worker. And when that happens, you get to decide which of the following co-workers you are going to be:

The Resentful One: This person refers to maternity leave as a “vacation”, makes comments about “productivity”, and loudly asks why everyone doesn’t get multiple “breaks” in the day. Don’t be this person.

Forget the working mom: looking petty at work is not good for you. Spend your time doing great things and making sure people notice them.

The Inappropriate Comment-Maker: This person is uncomfortable with the knowledge that breasts make milk (as opposed to those other functions), and masks this discomfort with jokes (“Save some for your coffee!”), hand motions (“milking the cow” is a favorite), and questions (“Are you going to keep that up until college?”). Don’t be this person, either, unless you want to end up in an even more awkward conversation – this time, with HR.

The “I’d Rather Not Know” Guy: This person will not complain, and will not bother a breastfeeding woman at work. He or she just wants to be left out of it. Totally fine (as long as you are not overdoing the “I don’t want to know” shtick to the point of it being attention-seeking).

The Best Thing Since Sliced Bread: Do you want to be an above-and-beyond supporter to a working mother? This role has you written all over it. I don’t know of any woman who has survived pumping at work without a few of these co-workers, so the rest of this article will walk you through how to be an MVP to a milk-making mom:

  1. Understand the basics: When a breastfeeding mother is away from her baby, she has to keep getting milk out of her body, for three reasons: 1) It will be painful if she doesn’t; 2) She has to keep demanding milk from her body in order for it to keep making milk; 3) She has to produce the milk Monday that her baby will drink Tuesday, and so on.  Most working women use a breast pump to get this job done. It’s a medieval-looking thing that the woman attaches to her breasts and runs for 15-30 minutes to pump milk into bottles, 2-3 times per work day. The milk goes into the fridge or freezer, and the parts are washed for next time.
  2. Ask how you can help: Don’t know how to start? Try saying this: “This is an awkward topic, so feel free to tell me you don’t want to talk about it. But I want you to know you can count on me as an ally?” Just letting her know you are supportive goes a long way.
  3. Figure out when she really needs to excuse herself: Meetings run long, and the breastfeeding woman’s blood runs cold, because
    she knows she’s not going to make it. (Especially in the early months, a delay can be painful. And we won’t even get into leaking.) If you see panic on her face, do everything you can to get her to out of there. “I could really use a 15-minute break,” you announce, and suddenly, you’re a hero.
  4. Keep snacks at your desk: Making breast milk requires 500 calories a day (do NOT use this information to ask why she has not lost all of her baby weight yet). You will win at everything if you have a granola bar on hand.
  5. Offer your office: If your employer does not have a private “lactation room”, the working mom will find herself in bathrooms, closets, cars, and conference rooms – difficult and time-consuming circumstances. If you have an office with a door, give her the keys while you are in meetings or at lunch.
  6. Shut down the bad-mouthers: Sometimes a working mother isn’t going to fight these battles. She might be in a position of less power, she might find it really awkward to address, or she might just be too busy.
  7. Assume she is still great at her job, unless she actively proves otherwise: It takes most new parents a few weeks to get back in a rhythm, but the vast majority are trying their hardest to be good at both jobs. So, assume she’ll be great, and look for reasons to confirm that, rather than noticing the odd bad day.

Let’s be clear: You don’t have to be the world’s most breastfeeding-friendly co-worker. But if you want to, the seven steps above will get you there. And at the very least, if you find yourself tempted to make those “milk the cow” motions with your hands, just stuff them in your pockets and walk away, and call that your good deed for

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The Shriver Report: “7 Ways to Support a Breastfeeding Co-worker” by JESSICA SHORTALL, A REPORTER FOR THE SHRIVER REPORT.

Jessica Shortall is a 35-year-old working mother, with a career dedicated to the intersection of business and doing good. She started out her adult life as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Uzbekistan (more vodka drinking than you would expect from a Muslim country), and hasn’t stopped searching for ways to change the world since, across the non-profit and for-profit landscape.


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