Teaching Profession Opinion

I Study Breastfeeding Behavior. Here’s Why Nursing Teachers Have It So Tough

Federal law just gave breastfeeding teachers more protection. Is it enough?
By Jill Inderstrodt — January 06, 2023 4 min read
Conceptual illustration of a breastmilk supplies puzzle with missing pieces.
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It was always an awkward declaration to make to a room full of young men: “When it’s break time, you’re going to see me run out of this room. I have to pump and I need every minute to get it done on the break.” While I have never shied from discussing breastfeeding in public (I have spent the last six years studying breastfeeding behaviors, after all), there’s something about announcing your plan to extract milk from your breasts to a classroom of 30 college students that seems to draw unwanted attention to your anatomy.

As a college professor, I was lucky to work for an institution with a designated pumping room. But while physical environment is important, physical space is only one piece of a puzzle that truly supports moms pumping. In my case, I was teaching back-to-back four-hour classes with a 10-minute break in between. We had a 15-minute break during each class, but with the designated pumping room a three- to four-minute walk from our classroom, I often ended up pumping under my cubicle desk during breaks, while shouting “look away!” to my male office mate who was horrified by the sucking sounds coming from my breast pump.

The situation is far worse for many K-12 teachers. Now that President Joe Biden has signed the Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers Act, or PUMP Act, into law, schools must take more seriously the needs of their nursing teachers.

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Photo of woman using breast pump.
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Until recently, moms in salaried jobs, such as teaching, were exempt from federal legislation for breastfeeding accommodations. Surprisingly, in an economy in which hourly workers typically have the fewest rights, they have been federally guaranteed a private pumping location and reasonable pumping break times. And perhaps this makes sense: Moms in service jobs often have a greater need for workplace protections.

But with the signing of the PUMP Act, some 9 million salaried workers previously excluded from legislation will now be guaranteed pumping locations and breaks. This is a step in the right direction. However, as with many nursing protections, the bill’s prescriptions are often at odds with the day-to-day logistics of jobs—such as teaching—that don’t allow for leaving one’s post for the 30 minutes required to pump both breasts. With this new legislation, it will be important for schools to codify scheduling requirements of pumping mothers, so that moms don’t have to choose between breastfeeding and teaching.

Moms pump for three main reasons: to replace the milk fed to their baby while they’re away, to maintain supply, and to prevent discomfort. Breasts continue to fill throughout the day and can become engorged and extremely uncomfortable if not relieved. This can become especially embarrassing in the early months of a baby’s life, when lactating moms can leak through their clothes if they don’t pump.

My experience pumping as a professor was logistically challenging, but the time restrictions placed on K-12 teachers are even more at odds with the realities of pumping. Teachers I have talked to reported difficult conversations with administrators in charge of class schedules who don’t understand the difference a couple hours makes in the physical comfort and supply maintenance of a pumping mom. They reported missed team meetings and being forced to pump during lunch, which can be extremely challenging as many pumps are difficult to operate while eating.

Middle and high school teachers often have a hard time getting a prep period that is at the midpoint between the beginning of the school day and their lunch. Elementary teachers might pump during music class or P.E.—if these increasingly rare special classes still exist in their school systems—but these accommodations must be scheduled well before the start of the school year.

In many cases, teachers have to choose between finding coverage for their classroom or forgoing pumping. With one or two pumping sessions per day, this could mean finding coverage 40 times a month. And teachers of all grade levels reported being interrupted while pumping, by fellow teachers, support staff, and, perhaps most mortifyingly, students.

Some might argue that pumping is merely a short-term inconvenience for a few months of a child’s life. But the data on teacher attrition suggest that more, not fewer, accommodations are needed to make the profession appealing enough to properly staff classrooms. Teaching is a job that demands a good education without the exchange of a flexible schedule. It’s no surprise that, as of March 2022, the K-12 education labor market had shrunk by 4 percent from pre-pandemic levels. It’s also not a surprise that teachers reported pandemic-era anxiety levels sometimes higher than that of health-care workers.

If we are going to recruit and retain our teaching workforce under such circumstances, teachers need all the accommodations we can give them. That means that legislation such as the PUMP Act must be accompanied by scheduling accommodations at both the school and district levels so that the legislation for lactating mothers transcends paper.

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