Image of Carla Smith holding her son, Sir

Breastfeeding at Work? Know Your Rights

Carla Tinsley-Smith describes motherhood as “one of the hardest blessings you’ll probably ever have.”

The 34-year-old Detroit resident recently reached the one-year milestone of nursing her first and only child, Sir Richard, who was born Aug. 7, 2017. For Tinsley-Smith, nursing her son for an entire year was challenging — to say the least. She had to figure out how to pump breast milk twice a day at work while still fulfilling her job duties as a communications planner at Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan.

So, during her 12 weeks on maternity leave, Tinsley-Smith did a lot research and planning to prepare for her new life as a working mom. And even though her past year hasn’t been perfect, she’s proud of what she’s accomplished.

“It was a personal thing for me to want to breastfeed, and I was committed to doing it for a year. I succeeded in that, and I’m excited about that,” said Tinsley-Smith, who said she may continue nursing her son at home but has completed her breast-pumping days at work.

Breastfeeding Rates on the Rise

As part of the Affordable Care Act, the federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers law took effect in March 2010. This law requires all employers to provide certain amenities to hourly paid employees so that they can pump breast milk or nurse their child during the work day for up to one year after the child’s birth.

These are the amenities that hourly paid employees must receive:

• A reasonable break time for nursing or pumping
• A private place to nurse or pump, other than a bathroom. (The room must be shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public.)

Even though salaried employees aren’t owed these amenities under federal law, many workplaces offer them or are willing to make arrangements as needed.

Meanwhile, breastfeeding rates continue to rise in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

• 83.2 percent of babies born in the U.S. in 2015 were breastfeeding, up from 76.7 percent in 2010.
• 57.6 percent of U.S. babies born in 2015 were still being breastfed at six months, up from 47.5 percent in 2010.
• 35.9 percent born in 2015 were breastfeeding at 12 months, up from 25.3 percent in 2010.

“Nobody can tell you that you can’t breastfeed,” Tinsley-Smith said. “That is a choice I made very early on.”

Pumped up for a challenge

When she returned from her maternity leave in October 2017, Tinsley-Smith began carving out time in her work schedule to pump breast milk for her baby boy. Twice a day, she’d go to a Blue Cross mother’s room to pump. Then she’d go to a nearby kitchenette, where she’d store the breast milk in a fridge, and wash and sterilize her pumping equipment. She allocated 30 minutes for each session.

If she had business meetings that conflicted with her normal pumping times, she’d adjust when she pumped. And on days when she had to work offsite, she’d bring a hand-held pump with her.

All the while, Tinsley-Smith tried to be mindful of her stress levels at work, knowing they could affect her milk production. And at work, she also drank at least a gallon of water to stay hydrated, snacked on healthy foods and sought out support from her co-workers.

“I am on a team with folks that get it; they’re moms themselves,” she said. “And they understand the struggles and the victories that you go through as a new mom.”

Tinsley-Smith also appreciated that her employer and insurer, Blue Cross, covered the electric breast pump she used at work. Since electric pumps can cost hundreds of dollars, “that is a huge savings,” she said. “It takes a lot of pressure off, and it makes it easier for a mom who is interested in breastfeeding.”

A mother’s work is never done

If you’re pregnant and plan to pump at work when you return from maternity leave, here are suggestions to aid your transition:

• Before you go on maternity leave, talk with your boss about your plans to pump. If you need tips about how to start that conversation, click here.

• If your workplace doesn’t have a mother’s room, find out what room will be made available for your pumping sessions. And consult the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law to make sure the room meets federal guidelines.

• Connect with other moms at your company, especially ones who are also nursing at work. That way, if you forget to bring bottles or other pumping supplies, you can ask to borrow theirs and vice versa.

• Join a breastfeeding support group to talk with other moms about breastfeeding while working.

• Find out if your insurance will cover the cost of an electric breast pump. And if you have a desk, clean out a secured drawer where you can store your pump and related supplies.

• Remember to do what works best for you to maintain your pumping schedule while balancing your work responsibilities.

• If your job requires a lot of traveling, check out Milk Stork, which ships breast milk for on-the-go moms.

• Check out these other resources for breastfeeding moms:

o Breastfeeding and going back to work
o Michigan Breastfeeding Network

“At the end of the day, you just want your child to be fed and have their nutritional needs met, so they can grow and be healthy,” Tinsley-Smith said.

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Photo courtesy of Carla Tinsley-Smith

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