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Breastfeeding while building a career

Archaeologist Veronica Perez-Rodriguez had just been hired as an assistant professor at the University at Albany, State University of New York and was planning her field season in the highlands of Mexico when she found out she was pregnant. Amid her excitement about becoming a mother was some anxiety: How would she deal with a baby in the field? She had already deferred her fieldwork once and couldn’t put it off any longer. The only option was to bring her 2-month-old son with her—something that was only possible with the help of her husband, a fellow archaeologist working on the project with her, she says.

Among the many tasks required to take care of the baby was feeding. Perez-Rodriguez chose to breastfeed her son, which she could do without too much trouble while running the field laboratory for the first 6 months of her fieldwork. But when, after a few months back in the United States, she returned to Mexico for another 8 months, her work took her further afield. During the day, she left her still breastfeeding son with her mother, who had traveled to the site to be with them. When breastfeeding mothers are away from their babies, they need to pump their milk every few hours to relieve the pressure and make sure they continue producing adequate amounts of milk, and if they want to keep the pumped milk to feed their babies later, it must be kept cold. For Perez-Rodriguez, that meant that she had to pump multiple times during the day, hauling her pump and cooler on a donkey for the steep mile-long trek to her mountain field site. 

It’s like the feeling that you really need to pee, except in your breast instead of your bladder.

–Wendy Wright

The challenges Perez-Rodriguez experienced while juggling a breastfeeding baby and a budding career may be more extreme than what most scientists face, but complications arising from breastfeeding affect scientists working in all sorts of environments. A U.S. federal law enacted in 2010 requires that employers provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk,” but not all employers have identified such a location. And even when companies and universities do provide these facilities, they’re not always convenient. For women in science—who may be running experiments, working in the field, or travelling to conferences and seminars—the everyday challenges of feeding an infant are amplified even further. But with some planning, advocacy, and support, breastfeeding doesn’t need to be a barrier to career advancement.

Priming the pump

Regardless of their professions, new mothers have to decide whether to breastfeed. In recent years, breastfeeding rates in the United States have increased, with the percentage of infants who are ever breastfed rising from just over 70% in 2000 to 80% in 2012, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Despite this trend, mothers who spend long hours away from their children don’t always have the time and space they need to pump their milk.

Women who breastfeed their children need to pump for several reasons. The first is to relieve the pressure that is created when the breasts fill with milk. “It’s like the feeling that you really need to pee, except in your breast instead of your bladder,” says workplace lactation consultant Wendy Wright, a scientist by training and founder of the Palo Alto, California-based breastfeeding support company 16 Minute Club. In other words, going without pumping is like trying to work with a bladder that is ready to burst. Not only is it profoundly uncomfortable and distracting, making it difficult to work, it can also increase the chances of developing infections.

Second, regular pumping helps establish and maintain an adequate milk supply. Breast milk production is dynamic, with the body generally producing more based on how frequently the breasts are emptied. Therefore, breastfeeding mothers who are away from their babies may need to pump to make sure they continue producing enough milk. La Leche League International, a nonprofit organization that offers information about and promotes breastfeeding, recommends that women pump their milk as frequently as they would breastfeed their babies at home, which can be as many as six times a day for newborns, with decreasing frequency as the baby gets older. Practical considerations, however, mean that many women pump two or three times per workday, which may be less frequently than would be ideal.

Finding privacy

Once Perez-Rodriguez returned to her lab in Albany, she was able to pump in the privacy of her own office, so she didn’t need a separate lactation room. The same was true for University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Meghan Duffy. “It was so much easier for me as a faculty member—I could close the door and work while pumping,” she says.

Grad students and scientists without their own offices, on the other hand, can be left scrambling. Perez-Rodriguez offered the use of her office to a grad student of hers who was breastfeeding, but the student felt too awkward accepting and instead made other arrangements. When Duffy noticed several graduate students in her department needing a private space in which to breastfeed or pump, she helped negotiate the temporary designation of an unused office as the department’s de facto lactation room. Only the breastfeeding mothers were given keys, which meant that they and no one else could use the room whenever they needed. It’s these kinds of small acts that can make a huge difference in the stressful life of a new mom, Duffy says.

If someone doesn’t offer a spare office, both Duffy and Perez-Rodriguez recommend talking to other friendly researchers or department heads for help identifying a place to pump. Often such spaces are available, but other scientists don’t always think of the possibility that they can be used for this purpose.

Some new mothers have turned to hands-free breast pumps that can be tucked into a special bra, which allows them to monitor hours-long experiments without having to leave the lab to pump. Privacy is required to put the bra on (some women say they can wear the bra all day, whereas others say they only wear it while pumping), but once it’s on, wearing a loose shirt on top lets them walk and work while pumping. The bras cost between $20 and $35, on top of the cost of the breast pump.

Making time

Breastfeeding mothers need not just space, but also time, emphasizes Judith Masucci, a scientist by training who now owns and runs a business aimed at helping mothers breastfeed. At the small biotech startup where she worked when her son was born, her bosses began to resent her need for pumping breaks, even though she continued to work on the phone or over email while pumping in her office, she says. But being clear and open with her colleagues helped defuse the situation. “People were much more understanding when I told them of my specific needs.” Wright also encourages nursing mothers to be upfront about their pumping needs and to block out time in their schedules. “Don’t be afraid to say, ‘I pump every day at 10.’ It helps create the expectation that you will be otherwise occupied at that time,” she says.

Finding time to breastfeed can be particularly challenging at conferences, where attendees are frequently fully scheduled from morning to night. (The good news is that scientific conferences are increasingly offering onsite lactation rooms.) Similar problems can arise when giving invited talks at other institutions. Duffy has found that requesting adequate breaks and a private space up front, as the schedule is being planned, is crucial, even though the conversation can be uncomfortable. “It’s really awkward. You have to talk about your breasts with someone you just met,” she says. But, she notes, the alternatives—rushing around trying to find space on your own or not being able to find a space and being very uncomfortable—are worse.

On the road

With conferences and many scientific careers comes travel. For Masucci, the regular travel her biotech job required would have meant an end to her breastfeeding if she hadn’t had the financial resources to pay for her son and nanny to accompany her. The expense was significant but worth it, she says, because it meant that she didn’t have to pay to have the pumped milk sent home by overnight mail. Nor did she have to juggle a suitcase full of milk at the airport or pay for extra checked bags. And if she was carrying pumped milk, her baby’s presence helped allay suspicions at airport security.

Although it is legal to bring any volume of breast milk in your carryon luggage, not all airport security agents are aware of the law, Masucci points out. She portioned her pumped milk into 3-ounce bags so as not to raise further alarms, even though this isn’t required. Duffy advises parents transporting breast milk to print out a copy of the guidelines to show any agents who are suspicious.

Advocate and ask for help

Women should speak up about their needs in the workplace, Wright says. “Women aren’t advocating for their needs, and companies aren’t giving them.” Medical journalist Tara Haelle recommends starting this process even before the baby is born. “After the baby is born, you’re going to be tired and not want to advocate” or have the time and energy to do so, she says.

Haelle knows from experience. When she arrived at the University of Texas, Austin, for grad school, she had trouble finding a place to pump breast milk for her young son. “I didn’t know what was available,” she says. “I didn’t know who to ask and where to go. I shouldn’t have been wondering these things. I shouldn’t have had to go out of my way to find this out.” Simply finding a lactation room didn’t solve the problem. The 10-minute break between the two classes she was assigned to teach wasn’t enough time to walk to the lactation room in the building, set up the pump, and express her milk before she had to return to teach. Even if she could have made it to the lactation room in time, she would have needed to call someone to unlock the room for her, eating up more precious time. As a result, she often ended up pumping in the bathroom stall, or even under the sink when a stall wasn’t available. She advises parents to enlist outside assistance, such as La Leche League and other breastfeeding or parenting organizations, to bolster support, including practical guidance on what services are required by law, and moral and emotional support. Breastfeeding and parenting are hard, she says, but help is available.

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