Women have made up 80 percent of the education workforce for the past five years, according to the most recent data from the Mississippi Department of Education, and more than one out of every ten teachers in traditional public schools are under the age of 30, which means many teachers may be at an age where they are starting or adding to their families. Breastfeeding at work can be challenging for many women, and teachers are not exempt from those challenges.
Dr. Vivian Malone, head principal at Popp’s Ferry Elementary School in Biloxi and a member of the Pascagoula-Gautier School Board of Trustees, shared her perspective on breastfeeding and the roles schools play in promoting healthy behaviors among employees and parents with us.
Let’s talk a little bit about your personal experience with breastfeeding. Did you breastfeed your children? I did not breastfeed my children. I have three children, who are 30, 25, and 19. When I was younger, breastfeeding was just not promoted as much as it is now. But I know for a fact my mother and grandmother breastfed.
What is your view on breastfeeding today? I believe breastfeeding is a very healthy choice for mothers as well as their babies. More than that, it is less costly than formula. I often tell the story of how my daughter had a hard time adjusting to formula, and my doctor never once suggested that I breastfeed. I think that would have been much easier for her and me because I tried so many different formulas. When I meet young mothers, I do encourage them to consider breastfeeding. It brings your baby closer to you, and breastfed babies tend to be healthier.
Is there any specific advice or words of encouragement you provide mothers who are considering breastfeeding? My words of encouragement would be not to allow someone, especially someone who has never breastfed, to discourage you. Don’t be embarrassed by it. Breastfeeding is natural. Don’t be afraid to work and breastfeed. It is possible to do both. I would suggest speaking about it with your supervisor to see what has been put in place for breastfeeding mothers.
When it comes to the education system, do you feel employees receive the amount of support they need to breastfeed and comfortably come back to work? Most teachers are female and of childbearing age. I can speak specifically about my school. I tell my teachers to not be hesitant to tell me if they have decided to breastfeed. We have set aside a room that is not a bathroom and camera-free, so they can have the privacy they need. [Teachers that are breastfeeding] have a team teacher able to step in for them throughout the day so they can pump when they need to.
I have heard other women talk about how their supervisors were not accommodating, and if they wanted to breastfeed, they would have to go into a bathroom. It didn’t feel sanitary for them to do that, so we made sure to create a comfortable and sanitary place for breastfeeding teachers in our building.
Are there any additional ideas you have to promote breastfeeding in the workplace? We need more conversation about it. Make sure supervisors are more comfortable with the idea of breastfeeding. No one talks about it. We could implement staff development for our supervisors on how to properly communicate with employees that are breastfeeding or plan to in the future.
So, when it comes to low breastfeeding rates among Black women on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, what can be done to boost those rates? In our health departments and OB-GYN facilities, breastfeeding should be promoted more. There should be more reading materials provided on the benefits of breastfeeding. A lot of women just don’t know. Probably because their mothers didn’t breastfeed either.
I think teaching children and young adults earlier on about breastfeeding is also a great idea. Our school district offers Family & Life Dynamics classes and at some point, students have to take a babydoll or an egg home and pretend to be parents. Those classes could easily incorporate the topic of breastfeeding.
SHEA supports many programs and initiatives to support health among Black mothers, babies, and families in Jackson, Hancock, and Harrison Counties, including Baby Cafés at Merit Health and Singing River Health System and the Coastal Family Health Center Baby and Me – Tobacco Free program. To learn more about these programs visit www.sheahealth.org.