Supportive coworkers are key to pumping at work

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The more support women receive from their colleagues, the more successful they are in believing they can continue breastfeeding, report researchers. While support from family or friends is important, surprisingly, coworker support has a stronger effect.

The study, published in the journal Health Communication, is the first to focus specifically on the effect female coworkers have on colleagues who want to continue breastfeeding by pumping at work.

“In order to empower women to reach their goals and to continue breastfeeding, it’s critical to motivate all coworkers by offering verbal encouragement and practical help,” says Joanne Goldbort, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at Michigan State University, who collaborated with lead author Jie Zhuang at Texas Christian University.

Pumping at work

According to Zhuang, people may assume that women in the workplace automatically encourage one another, but that often may not be the case.

The study surveyed 500 working mothers. Eighty-one individuals indicated they had never breastfed, and 80 had stopped before returning to work. Of those who continued breastfeeding after returning to work, more than half chose not to stick with it between the first and sixth month. While the specific reasons participants stopped weren’t tracked in the study, it did measure their thoughts and feelings around coworker perception and stigma, as well as how uncomfortable they were about pumping milk at work.

Overall, the data suggest that the act of simply returning to work played a major role in their decision to quit breastfeeding but receiving colleague support was instrumental to those who continued.

The research also shows that more than a quarter of the women who originally decided to breastfeed made the decision because their place of employment created a helpful environment, such as providing a place to pump. Around 15 percent said they chose to continue breastfeeding after returning to work because they had coworkers or supervisors who directly motivated them to do so.

Goldbort indicates that multiple variables could play into why coworker support seems equally important, if not more important, to working moms.

“One factor could be that simply spending the majority of their time during the day with coworkers necessitates more support for breastfeeding success,” she says. “In the workplace, a breastfeeding woman’s dependence on this is higher because she has to work collegially with coworkers, gain their support to assist with the times she’s away from her desk, and ultimately try to lessen the ‘you get a break and I don’t’ stigma.”

Official recommendations

Recently, the United States opposed the World Health Assembly’s resolution to promote the use of breast milk over formula. This runs counter to years of research that shows breastfeeding has significant nutritional benefits for babies and their development. It also has many advantages for the mother. Yet the number of moms who choose to continue to breastfeed in the US remains lower than health organization recommendations.

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest exclusive breastfeeding for the first six to 12 months and then continuing with supplementary feeding of solid foods up to two years of age or longer.

“If women know that coworkers and supervisors will support them in their breastfeeding efforts, it can make a big difference,” Goldbort says. “It really takes a village to breastfeed a baby.”

Source: Michigan State University