It’s time to truly support breastfeeding — for the health of working moms, babies, and your company

Image of woman breastfeeding

In our society, breastfeeding often gets the same treatment as other women’s health issues — it’s downplayed or dodged, making women feel confused when it doesn’t go smoothly, overwhelmed about their options, and even embarrassed to pump in the workplace or breastfeed in public.

This year for Breastfeeding Awareness Month, we want to help turn the status quo upside down by talking about what it takes to really support mothers at work and why breastfeeding is so incredibly valuable for infants, mothers, and even employers. 

Breastfeeding matters — for everyone

You’ve probably heard that breastfeeding has benefits for babies and mothers, but you might not realize how extensive — and impressive — that list of benefits really is or how those benefits ripple out to all of us.

To start, breastfed infants have:1

  • Lower rates of infant mortality, including sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS)
  • Stronger immune systems, which results in fewer illnesses and hospitalizations
  • Fewer cases of diarrhea, constipation, gastroenteritis, gastroesophageal reflux (GERD), and preterm necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC)
  • Less respiratory illness, including colds, pneumonia, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), and whooping cough
  • Fewer ear infections 
  • Fewer cases of bacterial meningitis
  • Better eyesight and fewer cases of retinopathy of prematurity

Beyond babies, breastfeeding has significant physical and mental health benefits for mothers. It’s been shown to:2

  • Reduce postpartum bleeding and stimulate the uterus to contract and return to size
  • Help with weight loss after birth 
  • Reduce rates of urinary tract infections and anemia
  • Lower the risk for postpartum depression
  • Improve mood and reduce stress by producing the hormones oxytocin and prolactin

These benefits don’t stop with the mother and child either. Breastfed babies tend to cry less, which eases stress for everyone. And the strong physical and emotional bond that comes from close contact during early life may help reduce social and behavioral problems later. 

Employers benefit, too. Working parents of breastfed babies miss less work than their counterparts with non-breastfed babies. According to one study, mothers of breastfed babies had one-third the number of one-day absences compared to mothers of formula-fed babies. In the same study, 86 percent of the babies who had no illnesses at all were breastfed.3 Based on all the benefits, it’s no surprise that breastfeeding mothers have higher morale at work, too.4

For employers, the benefits of breastfeeding translate to healthcare cost savings, lower absenteeism, and happier employees — which, in the long term, can save the costs associated with replacing workers. 

While it’s important to remember that breastfeeding is a challenge for some mothers and infants – and the best option is always the one that works for a woman and her family – there are lots of reasons for employers to embrace breastfeeding for any mother who chooses it. But Ovia’s recent survey shows that breastfeeding support in the workplace still has a long way to go.

Women aren’t getting the health support they need at work or the doctor’s office

We recently surveyed Ovia moms about breastfeeding and their health in general, and several findings stood out. 

First, when we asked moms with a workplace whether they feel comfortable breastfeeding or pumping there, nearly half (49.8 percent) said no. One big reason? Thirty-eight percent said their workplace did not offer a clean, safe, private space to breastfeed or pump; another 23.7 percent weren’t sure if their employers offered a lactation room at all.

Discrimination isn’t just happening at work. We asked our respondents how their doctors address their health needs, including whether they’ve experienced “medical gaslighting” — defined as having feelings or symptoms dismissed by a provider in such a way that the patient doubts her own experience. The numbers were striking:

  • 84.7 percent said they’d experienced medical gaslighting.
  • 63 percent said medical gaslighting had significantly delayed their ability to receive an accurate diagnosis. 
  • 42 percent of those who’d experienced medical gaslighting said it happened with their primary care provider (PCP). This is significant because PCPs are often the gatekeepers to specialized care.

Together, these findings tell us that in key areas of their lives, including work and the doctor’s office, women’s health is still overlooked. Even when employers offer meaningful benefits, such as well-appointed private spaces to pump, women may not know because no one is talking about it. Employers may have the best intentions, but they aren’t loud and clear about how they support mothers. 

The good news is that there is a lot employers can do right now to make positive changes for working moms. 

4 ways to support breastfeeding mothers in the workplace

A few steps can go a long way toward showing how much you value working mothers: 

1. Start with lactation rooms. While basic mother’s rooms are legally required through the Fair Labor Standards Act and the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, you can create a respectful space by making sure it’s private, comfortable and reservable.

Even better: add a refrigerator to store milk, a comfortable chair, water, and a few nutritious snacks. (Check here and here for more lactation-room best practices.) 

Creating a great space for breastfeeding or pumping isn’t just about logistics for mothers. It signals a bigger cultural shift toward acceptance. 

2. Boost your pro-breastfeeding culture. Train managers and teams to understand the value of breastfeeding, and to treat pumping time as sacred time (many women say they cut pumping short because they feel judged). 

3. Add breastfeeding-specific benefits. Additional perks, from lactation coaching to breastmilk shipping for employees who travel for work, can make a big difference for moms.

4. Go beyond breastfeeding. You can help bring attention to women’s health needs and provide support with programs and coaching for common health concerns, such as PCOS, and through major milestones, from fertility to menopause and beyond.  

Ovia can help you change the game for working mothers

Taking women’s health seriously isn’t just the right thing to do. It’s also critical for lowering healthcare costs and building a corporate culture that lifts employee morale and increases retention. 

Ovia is here to help. We offer 1:1 coaching with certified experts in lactation, parenting, and women’s health and wellbeing; physician-developed clinical programs; personalized health and wellness education; manager training; and benefits navigators so you can provide comprehensive women’s and family health support to your employees. Contact our enterprise team to learn more about these services.

1:  Cleveland Clinic. The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby & for Mom:–for-mom

2:  Cleveland Clinic. The Benefits of Breastfeeding for Baby & for Mom:–for-mom

3: Cohen, R. American Journal of Health Promotion. Comparison of maternal absenteeism and infant illness rates among breast-feeding and formula-feeding women in two corporations.

4: The Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Interventions in the workplace to support breastfeeding for women in employment.