Breastfeeding at School


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Shortly after I told my principal that I was pregnant, she let me know that she supports breastfeeding parents, and would make accommodations if I decided to go that route[1]. This was meaningful in two ways: 1) A supportive principal makes life easier and, 2) She didn’t leave it up to me to go digging around for this information. Her gesture mattered[2].

Breastfeeding can be hard; it is a round-the-clock commitment that doesn’t stop when you go to work. I’ve known more than a few mothers who have dealt with the stress of a dwindling ‘stash’ (stored frozen milk) as they transition out of maternity leave. There are several factors, however, that can make breastfeeding more do-able for working educators.

Space
As a school counselor, I had a private office buffered by a team of efficient and discreet administrative assistants. I knew I’d be able to close the door for a moment of privacy to feed my baby or express milk (known by my mama friends as ‘pumping’). Some international educators live on campus, and can pop home for a feed. But most people working in a school are surrounded by children in a room of windows for the majority of their day. What then? I’ve spoken to educators who pumped while hiding in storage closets, tucked between shelving units, and, yes, in the toilet.

“A dedicated nursing room is what’s needed. Period.”
– Breastfeeding educator in Brazil

“If the school met with the teacher before their return and asked what they needed in terms of space and time, and provided them with options, that would help a lot.”
– Breastfeeding educator in Jordan

“Parents with children under age two should be exempt from school-related travel.”
– Breastfeeding educator in Turkey

Time
Let’s say there is a satisfactory nursing room at your school. Now nursing parents must find some time in their schedule. If you are like the educators I know, you might eat lunch at 3:00 pm because that’s when your students leave. You might avoid your water bottle because you aren’t sure when you’ll next get to visit the restroom. This is the reality of working in a school. But pumping and storing breast milk for an infant can easily eat up half an hour or more several times per day. Teachers’ schedules are rigid, and their time without students is typically dedicated to important duties such as lesson planning or meeting with parents.

“If someone had offered to take my recess duty for me so I could pump, I would have broken down in tears of gratitude.
– Breastfeeding educator in Africa

“Give moms paid maternity leave and encourage them to take the full amount of leave.”
– Amanda Olson Vanderstelt, Breastfeeding international educator in Texas

Politics
Beyond finding the time and space for breastfeeding or pumping, educators may see the task is daunting for political reasons. There is a lot of judgment around how we feed our babies. Even well-meaning remarks like, “Good for you!” when I tell people I breastfeed imply that my decision is being assessed. Conversely, some people may see nursing as too personal or private for a work environment. Indeed, many women are nervous about breastfeeding outside the home. Depending on one’s relationship with school leadership and colleagues, it may be uncomfortable to ask for the time and space to pump. Providing the school’s policy upfront can reduce anxiety and create a more welcoming space for breastfeeding parents.

“Meet people where they are. What works for one person may not necessarily work for another.”
– Erin Robinson, Principal & breastfeeding mother, UWC South East Asia

“How about giving men a real paternity leave? Nursing in the first several weeks is like a full-time job. I wish my husband could have been around to help out with the tasks that started to build up at home.”
– Breastfeeding spouse of a teacher in the Middle East

“Contacts in human resources should have a working knowledge of policies related to parenting, and be available to craft a plan for employees returning from maternity and paternity leave.”
–  Breastfeeding administrator in Europe

The Law
Depending on which country you work in, there may be protections for breastfeeding parents, or not. U.S. law guarantees nursing mothers time and space (not a bathroom) for pumping on the job. The World Health Organization, however, has reported that breastfeeding laws in most countries are inadequate. International schools must uphold the laws of the country where they are located, but truly family-friendly schools will ensure that, even when not legally required, nursing parents are provided the necessary resources and support to breastfeed or pump at work.

How does your school support breastfeeding parents?  

[1] There are benefits to breastfeeding, and benefits to formula feeding. The decision of how to nourish a child is extremely personal, and this post is in no way meant to be an endorsement of breastfeeding over formula.

[2] This was Maya Nelson at Hong Kong International School, who has also seen to it that a breastfeeding/pumping/feeding room with changing table, couch, and private bathroom has been built into the school’s new campus.

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4 Responses to Breastfeeding at School

  1. Michele Ness says:

    Thank you for bringing awareness to this important issue. I will remember to reach out to the nursing moms in my buildings and ask if there’s a way I can support them, such as taking their classes for a few minutes so they can pump, etc. As the school psych I have more flexibility in my schedule and could offer those supports. As a parent in my mid-40’s, I think it’s important for us to help younger women who may be earlier in their careers and perhaps tentative about asking/demanding for these breaks and facilities (nursing rooms, etc0 for themselves. We can help advocate and normalize this culture by promoting and supporting it.

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear Michele,

      Thank you for this thoughtful comment. I am certain that your gestures will mean the world to breastfeeding parents. I spoke with so many mothers who felt utterly alone in their attempt to continue nursing after maternity leave. Those who had a supportive contact at the school, such as yourself, reported significantly more positive feelings about returning to work. It sounds like you are a true asset to your community!

      Sincerely,

      Emily

  2. Masee says:

    Thanks for this. It should be shared in all international schools. I am a mother of a 6 months baby boy. I am thankful that my director is very supportive.

    • Emily Meadows says:

      Dear Reader,

      Thank you for your kind comment. I am happy to hear that you have a supportive director! In researching this piece, I spoke with many international educators and, honestly, the vast majority had rather negative experiences maintaining breastfeeding after returning to work. I hope that my sample was simply not representative, but it indicated to me that there is certainly room for improvement in some schools.

      Thank you for reading! : )

      Sincerely,

      Emily

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