Teaching Profession

‘Would You Mind If I Pumped in Here?’ Breast-Feeding Teachers Lack Accommodations

By Liana Loewus — August 21, 2017 8 min read
Dawn Von Tersch plays with her son Jack, 1, at her home in Fort Smith, Ark. Von Tersch decided to stay home with her son after trying to breastfeed and pump at work as an elementary school teacher.

For many teachers who’ve recently become moms, the beginning of this school year will mark a new era of juggling the demands of the classroom and parenthood.

Among the greatest hurdles many mothers say they face when returning to school: finding the time, space, and support to pump breast milk for their babies.

In a profession where people say they rarely have time to step out to use the restroom, taking 20-minute breaks every few hours—which experts say is critical to maintaining a breast-milk supply—can seem all but impossible.

“When I got pregnant, people said don’t worry about breast-feeding,” said Tanya Reyes, who previously taught at Metropolitan High School in the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Teachers give up; it’s too hard.”

While many workplaces have private lactation rooms, space is often at a premium in schools. Consequently, teachers can find themselves pumping in supply closets, administrators’ offices, or their own classrooms. And they have few federal protections ensuring their rights and privacy.

Dawn Von Tersch nurses her son, Jack, 1, in his room at her home in Fort Smith, Ark.

“Our school is sort of open concept: My classroom had a doorway to another classroom, and there was no door,” said Dawn Von Tersch, who taught 1st grade in Van Buren, Ark., and pumped at her desk while her students were out for recess and special classes. “Just in case anyone did walk in, I had the testing dividers up and I had my back turned. And I also had a nursing scarf over everything.” Even so, unexpected visits “did happen a couple of times.”

The logistical challenges persist despite the fact that teaching is a majority female profession—and one that employs a great deal of women within the prime child-bearing years. About 77 percent of teachers are female, according to new data from the federal National Teacher and Principal Survey. The average age of teachers is 42.

Teaching also has a high attrition rate compared to many other professions, and more than a third of teachers who left voluntarily, according to previous federal data, said they did so primarily because of personal reasons, including pregnancy and child care.

Of the professionals she sees, “honestly, I think teachers have it the hardest,” said Gina Boling, a lactation consultant at the Breastfeeding Center for Greater Washington, in the District of Columbia. They “just don’t have the flexibility that somebody at a desk job has.”

When there’s no clear school policy on pumping, as is often the case, getting accommodations requires teachers to know the local laws and be assertive. Many teachers surrender sooner than they would have hoped.

“We didn’t have recess in my school, so my pumping journey did not go well,” said Amy Johnson, who previously taught elementary school in the Edmonds district in Washington state. “I didn’t understand I could have asked for time [to pump]. … I didn’t want to seem difficult because I was brand-new to that school.”

Supply and Demand

Decisions about breast-feeding are uniquely personal—and hinge on a variety of factors, including how well the infant responds and how much milk the mother produces.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that women breastfeed exclusively for six months and then breastfeed in combination with solid foods for the next six months. From there, the AAP suggests the “continuation of breast-feeding for as long as mutually desired by mother and baby.”

The benefits of breast-feeding, according to the medical group, include protection against ear infections, respiratory illnesses, stomach problems, asthma, and eczema. Some studies have shown a reduction in obesity and sudden infant death syndrome as well; however, some researchers have questioned the rigor of those and other breast-feeding studies given that they rarely use randomized experiments.

Women who return to work and want to continue producing breast milk need to pump throughout the day. “It’s supply and demand,” said Boling. “If a teacher is only able to get one good pumping session in a day, that can definitely impact her supply.”

In addition to dwindling milk production, new mothers who go for more than a few hours without pumping can leak or become uncomfortably engorged and risk getting painful plugged ducts and breast infections.

Von Tersh returned to the classroom when her son was 7 weeks old, right before her school held parent-teacher conferences. “I did not think ahead when I was scheduling conferences … so I went from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. without being able to pump,” she said. “Thankfully, the shirt I was wearing was black because I was leaking so bad.”

As part of the 2010 Affordable Care Act, breast-feeding mothers received more rights: The law changed the Fair Labor Standards Act to include a requirement that employers provide a nursing mother “reasonable break time to express breast milk” and “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion.” However, the law does not apply to most salaried employees, including teachers.

Even so, Robbie Gonzalez-Dow, the executive director of the California Breastfeeding Coalition, said the change increased awareness around breastfeeding and pumping in the workplace. “There was a lot more attention,” she said. The rules “provided good guidance for employers so that also made a difference.”

Twenty-eight states and the District of Columbia currently have laws related to breast-feeding in the workplace, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. When the state law provides more protections for breast-feeding mothers than the federal law, those should take precedence, according to the new requirements.

But women continue to have problems with getting the proper lactation accommodations, Gonzalez-Dow explained, in part because both the state and federal laws are generally only enforced if there’s a complaint.

“It requires a mom to be courageous to make that complaint, because even though it’s confidential, it would be obvious if she’s the only one pumping,” as is often the case in a school, she said.

A report released last summer by the ACLU of Southern California, BreastfeedLA, and the California Women’s Law Center found that of 81 Los Angeles County school districts analyzed, only 33 percent had lactation-accommodation policies for employees, and only 17 percent had lactation-accommodations policies for students.

‘Extremely Isolating’

Experts say women generally need 15 to 20 minutes to pump, as well as a few minutes before and after to set up and then clean and store their pump parts. They also need to refrigerate the expressed milk.

“I have a friend who would make [her 2nd graders] walk themselves to recess so she had enough time,” said Johnson. “She’d shut the door and pump. But [in most schools], that doesn’t go well.”

For other teacher-moms, pumping means missing out on planning time with colleagues.

Diana Moroney, who teaches at Francis Scott Key Elementary in the District of Columbia, said her experience pumping at her school was positive overall. Her classroom had a closet that she could use anytime without worrying about being walked in on. And she had a student-teacher, who could help cover her class.

“My situation was definitely the exception to the rule,” she said.

Even with that support, the experience “was still extremely isolating,” Moroney said. To avoid encroaching on learning time, she pumped during lunch and her prep period.

“I was never able to have lunch or have a planning meeting at lunch with my colleagues because I had to pump,” she said.

To avoid missing weekly team meetings, Von Tersch actually pumped in front of her colleagues.

“I’d have been missing out on training time, and I already felt so out of the loop. I was like, ‘Would you mind if I pumped in here?’ ” she said. The all-female group was fine with it. “I felt awkward, I think my principal [who attended the meetings] felt awkward, but after a while, it was normal,” she said. “We joked about how the pump sounded like it was talking to us.”

A setup like that wouldn’t work for everyone: Many women need to feel comfortable and relaxed before they can express milk.

“To be honest with you, my attempt with pumping at school did not last very long,” said Lindsy Stumpenhorst, now a principal in Sterling, Ill., who pumped years ago when she was a teacher. “It’s just super-stressful, regardless of how cooperative your boss or your colleagues are. When you’re sitting behind your desk at school, all you can think about is things you have on your to-do list.”

Now, as a principal, Stumpenhorst said she’d like to make pumping as easy on her teachers as possible. “If I can’t be the one to cover [your class], I’ll have a staff member step up,” she said. And if a teacher isn’t comfortable pumping in her classroom, “between my office, the nurse’s office, the counselor’s office, there will always be a place available to make it work.”

As Reyes of LAUSD sees it, administrators set the tone for how well nursing mothers are supported. For many months, Reyes had her nanny bring her baby to school so that she could breastfeed during lunch. She was eventually told that having her daughter on the high school campus was against district policy, so Reyes began leaving the building and nursing her daughter on the sidewalk across the street. Other mothers gathered with her one day in March to hold a nurse-in protesting the district’s policies.

In an email, Monica Carazo, a spokeswoman for the district, responded that having an infant on campus is “disruptive” and “poses significant health and safety risks.” She also pointed to the district’s lactation-accommodation policy, which says lactating employees have a right to express breast milk and that “the district celebrates the choice to do so.”

However, Reyes said the administration made that tough as well, telling her to go to an office rather than stay in her classroom to pump and asking that she remove her mini-fridge (though she didn’t end up doing either, she said).“From my experience, teachers are afraid to ask for what they need and to be difficult,” said Reyes. “To be successful working mothers is really hard.”

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A version of this article appeared in the August 23, 2017 edition of Education Week as Nursing Teachers Seek Time, Space To Pump at School

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