Women with children are the fastest-growing segment of the workforce, and more than 80 percent of new mothers in the United States begin breastfeeding. Employers are required to provide basic accommodations, such as time and space, for breastfeeding mothers at work, but there are also several benefits of supporting breastfeeding for employees.

Benefits of Breastfeeding for Employers

  • Breastfeeding employees miss work less often because breastfed infants are healthier.
  • Breastfeeding lowers health care costs.
  • Breastfeeding support helps employers keep their best employees so that less money is spent hiring and training new employees.
  • Breastfeeding employees who are supported in the workplace report higher productivity and loyalty.
  • Supporting breastfeeding employees can help create a positive public image.

Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) requires employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”

A recent Harvard Business Review article, outlines some steps employers can take to support breastfeeding employees:

Speak up about supporting breastfeeding parents: Sending the message that senior leadership supports nursing parents goes a long way toward ensuring their needs are given the respect required by law and best practice. Peer support programs are another way to build a positive environment for breastfeeding parents.

Provide adequate space: Some employers worry that providing private pumping space means undergoing expensive construction or redesign. But that’s unnecessary. Providing adequate space can be as simple as giving permission to an employee who normally works in a cubicle to schedule regular appointments in an existing office or room that is infrequently occupied. And don’t forget clean supply closets, private changing rooms, or temporary tents or portable partitions when no other options are available. These may be adequate if they are sufficiently shielded from view and free from intrusion. However, because bathrooms are filled with germs, they’re unacceptable for preparing a baby’s milk.

Employees who want to pump at their workstations, whether for ease or efficiency, should be permitted to do so, unless it would create a truly significant problem for the business.

Provide basic amenities: Pumping spaces should always have a seat, a flat surface on which to place the pumping equipment, and access to an electrical outlet or extension cord to power the pump. Allow milk to be stored in the company refrigerator (the CDC says it is safe), or if none is available, inside a cooler kept in a secure location. Provide nearby access to running water for cleaning hands and pump parts. Additional amenities like reclining chairs, dim lighting, and company-provided hospital-grade breast pumps help nursing employees express milk more easily.

Provide reasonable break time: Most nursing parents need 2-3 breaks during an 8-hour workday, depending on their baby’s feeding schedule and their bodies’ needs. Expressing breast milk typically takes 15-20 minutes per session, but sometimes longer. Some additional time is needed to travel to and from the lactation space, set up the pump, disassemble and clean up, and store the milk, which is why providing amenities and a pumping location that allow those to be done efficiently is worthwhile.

Don’t reduce pay for pumping breaks: The best practice is not to reduce an employee’s compensation for time spent pumping milk. Reducing compensation may leave a company’s lower-compensated employees with no choice but to stop pumping altogether, creating a disparity amongst employees and depriving the company of the benefits of a supportive breastfeeding policy.

Provide other reasonable accommodations when needed: In some circumstances breastfeeding employees may need additional accommodations, such as if they travel for work, wear tight-fitted uniforms, or work around toxins. The key is to engage in an interactive dialogue with the employee to reach a workable solution that both meets the employee’s physical needs and can be provided without imposing an undue hardship on the business.

Allow direct breastfeeding when possible: Some nursing employees may want to directly breastfeed their babies, either for medical reasons or for bonding purposes. Although not possible in all circumstances due to workplace hazards or distance, in many situations direct breastfeeding can be reasonably accommodated and should be allowed, either by allowing the child on site or by allowing the employee to leave the worksite.

Issue a written lactation policy with an accommodation request process: Having a written policy on the books ensures that managers, supervisors, and HR professionals respond to accommodation requests consistently, fairly, and in accordance with the law. This not only protects the company from legal liability; it also ensures that employees feel comfortable asking for what they need and can do so in a way that gives the company information necessary to respond appropriately. A written policy also conveys that the company takes breastfeeding support seriously. The U.S. Department of Women’s Health has a sample policy to get you started.

Educate decision-makers: Teaching supervisors, managers, and HR staff about the lactation policy and needs of breastfeeding employees is critical. Unless they were a recently-breastfeeding parent themselves, they’re unlikely to understand these needs without a little education.

In the same way companies train managerial staff to take seriously requests for accommodation associated with disability or family and medical leave, companies should prepare managers and supervisors to respond appropriately to lactation (and pregnancy) accommodation requests, including contacting HR when they’re unsure. HR professionals should be trained on the health and professional needs of breastfeeding employees and the value to the business in supporting and retaining them.