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Breast-feeding in the Office
Published Tuesday, June 20, 2017

While there’s been much debate over the attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the discussion has largely excluded a brief provision protecting nursing mothers. Section 4207 of the ACA requires employers with more than 50 employees to provide reasonable break time in a private, non-bathroom location for mothers to express breast milk up to one year after her child’s birth. However, the provision only applies to non-exempt or hourly employees under the Fair Labor Standards Act, and since there’s no NH law on the books covering all working women, a full repeal and incomplete replacement could limit salaried moms’ options when it comes to breast-feeding.

New Hampshire last updated its breast-feeding laws in 1999 when it exempted public nursing from indecent exposure laws. Since then, every other New England state—besides Massachusetts—passed office breast-feeding laws prior to the ACA being ratified, with Maine and Vermont requiring employers to accommodate a nursing mother for three years following her child’s birth.

Though the NH Senate passed a bill similar to the ACA provisions last year, the NH House Commerce and Consumer Affairs Committee voted in April 2016 to delay any action and instead formed a 12-person Advisory Council on Lactation tasked with producing an interim report by Nov. 1, 2016 and a final report by Dec. 1, 2017. As of press time, the council has not yet released an interim report and met for the first and only time on April 12, a year after the vote to form the council.

John Hunt (R-Rindge), chair of the Commerce Committee, says they didn’t have any evidence to indicate there was a need to act on the issue, leading them to “punt to an advisory council to try to figure it out.” He argues that salaried employees typically have a private office they can use and the ability to negotiate their contracts with their employers if they want these types of accommodations.

However, in 2016, researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health analyzed the breast-feeding practices of 2,400 women who gave birth between July 2011 and June 2012 (the most recent available data). They found that only 40 percent of women surveyed had access to both break time and private space, and those women that did have adequate accommodations were twice as likely to be breast-feeding exclusively at six months and 1.5 times as likely to continue breast-feeding exclusively with each passing month.

While the jury is still out for these state and federal protections, the verdict is clear on breast-feeding’s beneficial effects for mothers and their babies.

“Breast milk is the perfect food for an infant,” says Susan Mooney, president and CEO of Alice Peck Day Memorial Hospital in Lebanon, one of the first hospitals in the country certified by the World Health Organization’s Baby-Friendly Hospital Initiative. “There’s tons of research that shows babies that have been breast-fed are less likely to have infections, [gastrointestinal] problems and asthma, and we also see moms who breast-feed have less bleeding after delivery, lose more weight and reduce the risk of breast cancer.”

Mooney says she encourages women to exclusively breast-feed for about six months and then start introducing other foods and beverages while continuing to breast-feed until a year after birth. Though she stresses that bottle feeding is a viable alternative for women who can’t or choose not to breast-feed, Mooney says she’d hate to see an employer make such a personal decision on an employee’s behalf by disallowing her the opportunity to pump breast milk when she returns from maternity leave. “If you’re willing to work with your employees, it shouldn’t be that difficult to accommodate women who want to breast-feed,” she says.

Lauren Irwin, partner at Upton & Hatfield in Concord, says there’s also a more practical incentive for employers to consider supporting breast-feeding and similar policies. “Companies who are women and family friendly tend to have better retention and loyalty from their employees,” she says. In terms of breast-feeding specifically, Anne Rice, founding principal of Rice Law Office in Laconia, says “Women who aren’t allowed to breast-feed are less likely to return to work.”

Rice suggests employers offer flexibility in a new mother’s schedule to allow a healthy transition back to work, have time with her baby and replenish her milk. If an employee doesn’t have her own office, she should be provided a private room with a door that locks, a comfortable chair and an electrical outlet. If possible, she says employers should also offer means of preserving the breast milk separate from the breakroom refrigerator, such as a small dorm fridge.

These practices are being used by Medtronic, a medical technology manufacturer with more than 180 employees in Portsmouth. It offers a Working Mothers Group for employees to meets monthly for informal discussion about parenting challenges, work/life balance and driving career growth following maternity leave. Those discussions led to the company improving its private lactation room, with soft paint color, dedicated refrigerator for milk storage, soft light, sound machine and hospital grade breast pump. Mothers who use the room can structure their work schedules to include pumping breaks as needed.

Above all else, Rice says employers need to be flexible. “If we can allow employees to take smoke breaks, we should be able to accommodate women who are trying to support the physical and emotional health of themselves and their babies,” she says.

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