By Leslie Stone

You are standing in line waiting for your turn to go through the metal detectors in a government building in South America. As your bag goes through the X-ray machine you know what is going to happen next. “Señorita, what is this in your bag?” You try to explain to the security guards what a breast pump is, and that it’s not an explosive device even though ‘pump’ is also called ‘bomba’ in that country.

Returning to work while still lactating comes with its own set of challenges to breastfeeding success. However adding work travel to it makes things even more difficult.  There are many ways in which employers can support breastfeeding: longer maternity leaves (both paid and unpaid options), temporary part-time schedules, telecommute options, workplace daycare centers, equipped lactation rooms, providing access to lactation consultants, official time to express milk, and postpartum travel policies.

Having a private space and the time to express breastmilk in the workplace are important pieces for breastfeeding success for lactating women returning to work. But how can an employer ensure space and time outside of the office? A premature return to work travel while lactating is more than just inconvenient, it presents both a hardship and health risk of infection (mastitis). It is complicated combining meetings in many places along with keeping up a regular pumping schedule in order to maintain your milk supply, all while trying to find a private (and hopefully clean) space to pump.  While this post references experiences of IDB lactating mothers, it can easily be extended to any employer anywhere that employs women and especially those who require work travel.

Picture these real situations and keep in mind the following: (1) There is psychological aspect of lactation that requires you to be mentally relaxed in order for your milk ‘let down’ function to work and the milk to flow before expression can begin– imagine yourself in these not-so-private places and situations, attaching plastic pump parts to your breasts for 20 minutes, trying to feel RELAXED. (2) Given the time and energy it takes to express milk, and given that this is your child’s FOOD, you probably want to store your milk and transport it back home.

During your 10-hour flight to the Southern Cone from Washington DC, you have to pump a few times in your airplane seat under your airplane blanket, while an elderly male passenger in the seat next to you asks you what you are doing (you quickly reply that are doing a special asthma treatment). Or while attending work meetings at the Ministry of Social Protection you need to borrow the Vice-Minister’s office to pump due to lack of space and electrical connections in the bathroom, all while he waits OUTSIDE.  Imagine having a last minute field visit to the other side of a Caribbean island without your breastpump in hand, leading to severe pain, engorgement and a clogged milk duct at the end of the day due to missing a few pumping sessions. Then try asking your hotel restaurant permission to store all your expressed breastmilk in its refrigerator since your room refrigerator is not cool enough. Picture trying to transport your expressed milk on your flight back home in a cooler only to be told by airport security that you have to put it in your checked luggage or else dump it in the trash since it is an unauthorized liquid. Worse yet, imagine pumping religiously 6-times daily during your 5 days away, and upon returning home your baby refuses to breastfeed anymore, thus sadly ending your breastfeeding duration much earlier than you had planned.

After many moons, the Bank recently approved two important lactation policies.  These policies support female employees who are returning to work post-partum to continue breastfeeding their infants: official lactation time (up to 2 hours per day to express breast milk – modeled after the UNICEF policy) and a post-partum travel restriction (up to one year post-partum – modeled after the IMF policy).  The new IDB policies follow the recent construction of a top-notch lactation room at Bank headquarters.  Access to these policies and equipped space will be life-changing for some of the approximately 11% of IDB employees who take a maternity leave each year, now and in the future.

The IDB needs to make sure that these lactation policies are equally accessible to all women in all of its offices, and should also consider approving a post-partum travel policy for male staff, given the importance of the partner’s physical presence in the first weeks after birth in order to support breastfeeding.

Since 2012, Leslie Stone is Economics Senior Specialist at the Office of Evaluation and Oversight of the IDB. She entered the IDB as a Young Professional in 2003 and spent a total of 7 years as a Social Protection and Health specialist. Leslie has a Ph.D. in Demography from the University of Pennsylvania and she is the mother of three children.


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  • Angela Usas

    I was very glad to read this article and learn that the IDB has approved two new lactation policies to help mothers still lactating. The access to space and time for lactating is DEFINITELY life-changing because it allows mothers to go back to work if/when they need to while also providing their baby with the most nutritious ‘food’ an infant can get. The World Health Organization suggests that mothers nurse for the first 2 years, minimum, so the longer the better for babies.
    I don’t have personal experience with the difficulties that Leslie mentioned above, but I know they exist. I have several friends who have done SOOO much and dealt with extra stress to keep trying to breastfeed as long as possible.
    I’m proud that the Bank respects its employees enough to provide them the space and time to not only get back to work but to continue to do what’s important for their babies and families. I hope that other employers will take this initiative!!! More women need this kind of support from the workplace.
    A good analogy to consider is the following: when people train for marathons, we admire them for their commitment, discipline, dedication, hard work and balance to train while working and fulfilling other demands. Working mothers work equally (or I would argue harder) to balance working and mothering (especially while nursing) and yet people give them a hard time rather than praise all the effort that working and mothering requires.
    I am a stay-at-home mom and I cannot imagine the constant stress I would feel working and mothering. It’s time we started praising working mothers and all that they do.
    Leslie, thank you for making people aware of the challenges that working mothers face. IDB, thank you for setting a good example of how employers should support their working moms.

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