Innovative Breast Pumps Are Nice, But Nursing Parents Need Systemic Change

Supermajority Education Fund

November 26, 2019

A new breast pump recently named one of the most innovative inventions of the year by TIME boasts that it allows moms to “discreetly pump while performing daily activities.” But its $499 price tag highlights how difficult it is for nursing parents, especially those with limited financial resources, to get the support they need in the workplace.

While having the right equipment is important when it comes to pumping on the job, “having the space and time to do so” is also crucial, Sarah Brafman of A Better Balance, an organization that promotes better policies for working parents, told Supermajority News. “That hinges on employers both following laws that are in place and doing the right thing.”

Nursing parents have the right to pump at work through the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which specifically guarantees the right to a clean space to pump that is not a bathroom and the right to take breaks when they need to express milk. Despite that, according to Brafman, the law is often inconsistently enforced particularly for workers in the construction, manufacturing, service, or retail industries. Studies have shown that service and retail workers often stop nursing earlier than they would like because pumping at work is unmanageable — nursing stations are often makeshift or otherwise inaccessible in these industries. Several factors, including stress and the inability to stick to a schedule, can affect a parent’s milk supply, so a lack of a lactation space, as well as the ability to establish a lactating routine, can negatively impact a parent’s plan to nurse going forward.

Pumping at work is also challenging for parents who work at small businesses that are not covered by the FLSA’s “Break Time for Nursing Mothers” law. Under this provision, all hourly (non-exempt) employees must have the time and space to pump, but businesses with under 50 employees can apply for an “undue hardship exemption.”

It’s important, therefore, for parents to know the current laws in their states. Brafman notes that A Better Balance’s resources, “Talking With Your Boss About Your Pump,” helps employees do just that. Before going on maternity leave, Brafman said, parents should educate themselves about not only their rights but also their “needs and [be]able to communicate that,” to their boss. 

As for employers, Brafman said, they must realize that not all nursing parents are the same as they design their policies. “We’ve spoken to women who pump every three hours on the regular, [and] we’ve spoken to women who may have twins, so they are pumping more frequently,” she noted. “Everyone’s body is different, so that needs to be taken into account as well.”