What Women Should Know About Breastfeeding at Work

Basics of the Break Time For Nursing law, plus tips for broaching the topic with your boss.

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When Amanda Glenn returned to work after having her first baby, she knew she wanted to continue to breastfeed. But she was nervous about having the pump-at-work conversation with her male boss.

"I was honestly pretty apprehensive," says Glenn, who works in marketing at Fredrick Community College in Maryland. "Breastfeeding is something that is private."

She talked with the college's human resources department first, letting them know she'd need to take breaks during the day to express milk. In the end, her boss was understanding, and Glenn says she's glad she did it.

But many women who breastfeed don't realize they have the right to time and a private place to nurse at work. And for those who do, it can be difficult or embarrassing to bring up the topic, especially with a male supervisor.

Yet awareness about the cause is growing, with a call to action from Surgeon General Regina Benjamin last month to remove barriers that prevent women from breastfeeding. And now, as we approach the year anniversary of the passage of the federal law that requires employers to provide pumping accommodations in the workplace, the Labor Department is asking women, employers, and anyone with a stake in the issue for help clarifying the specifics of those requirements.

"A lot of women really want to keep breastfeeding when they go back to work, and they don't even realize that it could be a possibility or that asking their employer to support them isn't an unreasonable demand," says Kirsten Berggren, who breastfed her son while working at a software company and now blogs at WorkAndPump.com. "The new federal law gives women a lot more backing to say, 'This is what I need.'"

[See 15 Ways Good Bosses Keep Their Best Employees.]

The law, called Break Time for Nursing Mothers, requires companies with at least 50 employees to provide reasonable time and a private space—not a bathroom—to pump milk until the baby is a year old. It does not spell out how much time is reasonable, nor whether that private space should include, for example, a lock on the door or a refrigerator to store milk. That's why the Labor Department is developing guidelines for the law, asking for feedback from the public before February 22.

Because of how the law was passed last March, as an amendment under the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, it applies only to employees who are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act. Generally, that means hourly workers and not salaried workers, although the actual distinction is fuzzier than that. But while the law doesn't protect everyone, it sends the message that employers should take breastfeeding at work seriously.

"It's our hope that employers, once they've gone through the effort to make this available to the non-exempt [from the Fair Labor Standards Act] employees, that they would also simply make it available to their exempt employees," says Nancy Leppink, acting deputy administrator of the Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division, which is responsible for enforcing the law.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends women breastfeed exclusively until their baby is six months old, saying it boosts the child's immune system, among other health benefits. But only a small percentage of mothers follow that suggestion, according to The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About three of every four mothers breastfeed their child at birth, the Centers report, but by six months, the number drops to 43 percent, with only 13 percent of mothers breastfeeding exclusively.

Employers are not required to compensate employees for pump breaks unless they offer unpaid breaks for other reasons, such as lunch.

[See 8 Workplace Perks for New Parents.]

In addition to suggestions about what kind of accommodation and time employers should provide, the Labor Department is looking for creative solutions for companies that don't have offices—with employees who work, for example, as bus drivers or in shopping malls. As of the end of last week, the department had received about 850 comments, according to Leppink.