Breastfeeding has been a pretty damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t experience for me. I’m in an extremely privileged position, breastfeeding-wise — with relatively generous (for the U.S.) maternity leave and a private office with a door — but it’s still been a challenge. New mothers hear a great deal these days about the expense and health toll (though frankly some of that science is questionable) of formula-feeding (or, as Kaiser’s lactation consultant insisted on calling it, “artificial food”). But breastfeeding also has well-documented and significant financial penalties for women who work outside the home. And people who wouldn’t ordinarily pronounce on a woman’s personal decisions feel no compunction, for some reason, about passing judgment on a mother’s decision about how to feed her baby.1
At the moment, I’m on my way back from the Society for Cinema and Media Studies, my first real trip away from the baby. The conference organizers were really helpful to me when I asked for lactation accommodation, finding me a room in the sold-out conference hotel so that I wouldn’t have to miss too much of the event. (Though this, of course, meant staying in the conference hotel, which I usually avoid in order to save money.) Still, it’s been a bit of a logistical challenge, involving trekking across airports in search of remote nursing rooms, sending a pump through security checkpoints, and absenting myself from events every few hours.
In a perfect world, we’d all understand the mechanics of lactation so that we can accommodate women who are breastfeeding. But I’d be pretty wildly hypocritical if I condemned others for their ignorance, having until recently been in the same position myself. A few months ago, I was embarrassed to realize I had no idea where to send a woman who needed to use a breastpump at an event I’d helped organize. I didn’t even really know what she’d need, having never dealt with it myself. Which is to say that I understand why this stuff is confusing. So I thought I’d do my tiny part by explaining why we need what we need for the benefit of anyone who might host a breastfeeding mother.
Women who are breastfeeding and are away from their children will probably need to use a breastpump every two to four hours (though this interval can vary a great deal from woman to woman). This is because going too long without expressing breastmilk can lead to engorgement, a painful infection, and a diminished milk supply. A breastfeeding mother will probably also need to save the breastmilk she pumps so that she can feed it to her child later (though sometimes mothers “pump and dump” if they can’t get the milk home easily). Pumping usually takes somewhere between 15 minutes and half an hour, plus time to wash parts and reassemble one’s outfit, though this, too, varies a great deal from woman to woman.
Most women who pump frequently use electric breast pumps. So a breastfeeding mother will need, at a minimum, a private room with an electrical outlet. Public restrooms won’t work because they’re not very private, they may not have an electrical outlet, and they’re not very sanitary. Plus, frankly, it’s unpleasant to hang out in a public restroom for 20 minutes at a time.
It’s really nice to have access to a fridge (even nicer if it has a freezer) to store milk, although many women have coolers for breast milk. It’s also nice to have access to a sink to wash bottles and pump parts (and dump milk if necessary).
It’s also very helpful if I can pump at the last possible moment before I travel, because flights can be long and many airports don’t provide lactation rooms. This may mean extending my hotel checkout time, an accommodation that unfortunately proved impossible at the SCMS conference hotel. If the conference organizers had said something to the Drake Hotel’s management, it would have been easier to make my case at the hotel’s reception desk.
So that’s all. It’s not too complicated. It’s really nice when someone anticipates these needs — as Jacqueline Wernimont did for this weekend’s THATCamp Feminism — so if you’re hosting a large group or you know that an attendee has a young child, you might just include a line about lactation accommodations in event materials or an email, the same way you offer accommodation to people with disabilities. As a matter of principle, I make a pretty vocal fuss about these things, but you can imagine why raising this issue is uncomfortable for many mothers.
And, not that you would do this, but it has happened to me: Unless you know me really well, please don’t make a hilarious joke about breastpumping, recoil in theatrical horror when the subject comes up, or chide me for grossing you out. It makes me feel weird and gross, and heaven knows I’m not doing this for kicks.
1. The American Academy of Pediatricians recently advised physicians that “infant feeding should not be considered as a lifestyle choice, but rather as a basic health issue,” a statement that I find breathtakingly hostile to the realities of breastfeeding for many women, given its significant emotional and financial costs.↩