So your coworker just returned from maternity leave (yay!). Surely, you’re glad to have her back—and not only for the steady dose of baby pictures.
If this working mom is breastfeeding her little one, her new work schedule is going to involve stints of feeding or pumping breastmilk—and that means she needs the support of her leadership and teammates. In fact, one study published in 2018 suggested that support from colleagues can have a direct impact on a woman’s breastfeeding success. After all, she may be spending at least half her waking hours on the job.
How can you be part of that breastfeeding support system? Get ready to brush up on your “soft skills”! Here are five ways you can support your breastfeeding coworker.
1. Be flexible with your schedule
Whether she works from home or outside of the home, a breastfeeding mom needs to feed or pump many times per day. This ensures she can supply enough milk for her baby and maintaining a consistent schedule is key. Skipping a session could lead to pain and discomfort, leaks, and even infection. So if this new mama has a couple half-hour blocks marked off on her calendar each workday, that’s probably what they’re for. Be flexible and connect with her another time. Chances are she has worked out a plan with her manager, so leave it to them to figure out her schedule and workload. And if you need clarity on her schedule, ask! When mamas find taking these breaks too difficult—that’s when they tend to stop pumping at work.
2. Advocate for a pumping space
Breastfeeding mamas have a right to a clean, private place to pump at work. That place is not—repeat, NOT—a bathroom stall. Whether it’s a dedicated pumping room, an empty office or a converted storage room, this nursing room should ideally lock from the inside, have covered windows (or none at all), include a power supply, and offer a comfortable place to sit. She’ll also need a place to safely refrigerate expressed breastmilk until closing time. If nothing exists yet, you could approach HR about designating a lactation room. Fun fact: This workplace accommodation is actually required by law!
3. Think before you speak
Take a moment to think about your choice of words when talking to your coworker. While it’s common for many people to refer to parental leave as a vacation, it’s incredibly hard work. She’s not only recovering from a major medical procedure but is also nurturing a baby that needs care 24/7. The US lags significantly behind other developed countries in our support of new parents, and mothering a young infant can be challenging, unglamorous work.
4. Educate your co-workers
While you took the time to read this article and understand how to be supportive, many of your other co-workers may be oblivious to the challenges of breastfeeding and pumping. Maybe they don’t understand why she needs to leave meetings early. Maybe the sight of stored breastmilk in the office fridge is unfamiliar. If other colleagues make mis-steps or insensitive comments, speak up and help educate them. Moms who feel supported breastfeeding at work tend to be more productive and are more loyal to their employer, so fostering a positive environment benefits everyone.
5. Work it out
This breastfeeding thing may be new to you and it’s natural to be curious and want to learn more. If you have a close-enough relationship with your colleague, feel free to ask her about breastfeeding. Otherwise, do your own research—whatever it takes to grow more knowledgeable and comfortable. (But to be clear, she doesn’t need anyone’s permission or approval to pump at work.)
The world needs more breastfeeding-friendly workplaces, and this isn’t just the work of nursing moms. Your encouragement will help your colleague transition back to work more smoothly and keep on breastfeeding—paving the way for the working women who will follow her.
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