Federal law signals change in workplace culture

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By Mary Meehan
Kentucky News Content Service

A new federal law requiring employers to make accommodations for breast-feeding mothers will represent a big shift for some Kentucky companies because few have comprehensive plans.

Before the law, some breast-feeding women found themselves with no alternative at work but to pump their milk in bathroom stalls.
Support from an employer can make a difference in the life of a new mom. Lauren Goodpaster pumped milk for her son, Sam, now 2, while working at the University of Kentucky, which last year introduced a comprehensive breast-feeding program.

“It’s not easy being a working mom when you are trying to breast-feed,” said Goodpaster, who is pumping now for her 8-month-old, Max. “Just having the support, having people say that’s a great thing you are doing, that was kind of a boost to keep me going on days when it is such a pain.”

The U.S. Department of Labor is still finalizing specific accommodation requirements and penalties for those who don’t adhere to the new regulations, which are part of the health care reform bill, said Doraine Bailey, a breast-feeding support services coordinator at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.

Accommodations could range from providing a clean room with a locked door for an office worker to allowing an hourly worker at a fast-food restaurant — where space might be scarce — time to use a breast pump in her car.

The federal law and a recently announced pro-breast-feeding campaign by the U.S. surgeon general reinforce the health benefits of breast milk for infants. Children who are breast-fed are sick less often, which means new mothers lose fewer days at work, Bailey said. According to the National Center for Women’s Health, nursing mothers are half as likely to miss work with a sick child compared to women feeding their babies formula.

Kentucky’s breast-feeding rates are among the lowest in the nation, with about 59 percent of new mothers breast-feeding, according to state health statistics. The national rate is 75 percent.

The law will help make discussion about breast-feeding easier to broach in the workplace, said Lexington lactation consultant Janie Weatherford. It can be uncomfortable to talk about breast-feeding with your supervisor, she said, and even employers helpful to breast-feeding moms tend to get less so over time.

“People might be really open to it in the first few weeks or months,” Weatherford said, but as the months stretch on, the attitude becomes “surely you are not still doing that?”

The stress related to finding a place to pump can cause some mothers to quit prematurely or constrict their milk supply to the point breast-feeding is impossible, she added.

Some Kentucky employers are moving ahead with plans to accommodate breast-feeding. The Louisville Metro Government and four Louisville hospitals recently announced programs to encourage breast-feeding. Louisville will add 13 lactation stations at government work sites; that plan is funded by a $7.9 million federal grant.

The Lexington-Fayette County Urban Government deals with breast-feeding on a departmental level, said spokeswoman Susan Straub.
Cerise Bouchard is pleased with the new law. She created her business, Mother Nurture, a breast-feeding and natural parenting shop in Lexington, more than four years ago to help mothers find breast pumps, nursing bras and other breast-feeding accessories. She allows her employees not only to pump breast-milk but to bring their nursing children to work.

She sees a lot of work that needs to be done, even educating medical professionals about the importance of breast-feeding. The law is a step in the right direction, she said.

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