Breastfeeding on Campus: What to Know

Are you a college or university student and breastfeeding?  Do you feel that your institution is supportive of breastfeeding and pumping?

There are efforts on campuses around the country to make lactation accommodations a reality, but the success stories aren't well known. 

That's why we're very pleased to share an interview with the authors of a new book on this topic, Breastfeeding Best Practices in Higher Education, edited by Michele Vancour and Michele Griswold.  This book demonstrates the need for campus support of breastfeeding and pumping, and highlights best practices for supporting nursing moms.  The authors are identified by their initials below.  

In doing the research for your book I'm sure you learned of lots of interesting ways that campuses are accommodating nursing moms.  What are some of the more creative ways you've seen campuses do this?

MV: There were several creative ways we saw campuses accommodating nursing moms. One area that impressed me was in their consideration of lactation spaces. Some campuses have spaces for multiple users separated by a curtain or cubicle divider and some use small spaces like converted closets. They also had creative and convenient ways for moms to access supplies for pumps or themselves. One campus has a vending machine filled with breastfeeding supplies, like pump pieces, water bottles and snacks, like granola bars, for a small price. The campuses were great at engaging breastfeeding moms through listservs, support programs with lactation consultants, and by naming champions on campus for breastfeeding support. Many campuses provided accessible options to improve accessibility of their spaces, like a lactation room rating system, Google Map locator, and a 5-minute walking rule for the location of lactation room.

MG: In addition to the creative things that Michele Vancour highlighted, I was also fascinated by the creative policies that colleges and universities were developing to support breastfeeding mothers on campus. Many of the universities in our book used a “bigger picture” type of framework to develop policies. In other words, they embedded the rationale for their breastfeeding and lactation policies into the greater mission of the university or into current campus initiatives. For example, one university that has made a push for environmental sustainability on campus, was able to see support for breastfeeding in this framework. Some ways to consider how to do this would be to think about breast pumps that can be multi-user or breast pumps that can be recycled, for example. Another example of how universities were able to find funding for lactation support, conceptualized a breastfeeding support program (and human resource benefits) as a way to engage women faculty in a STEM initiative (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math). They requested STEM grant funding and rolled breastfeeding support into the request. One more example was that for universities who were initially founded as “land grant institutions” supporting breastfeeding fit into a mission of supporting communities and future workforce in those communities. For these institutions, breastfeeding as a powerful preventive health behavior, supports lifelong health for children contributing to and ensuring a healthy future workforce.  There are many more examples of unique policies in the book.

What are some of the ways that students are different from employees when it comes to lactation accommodations?

MV: Students have to catch small pockets of time in between classes, especially if they commute. They may have to carry their pumped milk, pumps, and supplies with them all day. Their classes may be spread out across a large campus making it necessary for a variety of accommodations to alleviate that burden on them. I haven’t seen any good examples. We are just starting to learn a little bit more about the specific struggles of students and breastfeeding on campuses.

MG: This is a great question and Michele Vancour knows more about this than I do but every day I am learning more about students' unique problems with maintaining breastfeeding and lactation while on campus. It is also interesting that some universities appear to specifically include students in their breastfeeding policies while others may not.  Although the book did not have a specific focus on student experiences, I hope that we were clear in identifying the inclusion of students, both undergraduate and graduate students, in supportive breastfeeding policies. As we know, in addition to having a “place” that is suitable and accessible for expressing milk, flexibility is key in order for mothers to maintain lactation while in workplace. It is no different for students who have full course schedules and teaching schedules (for graduate students). Moving forward, university policies should take student needs into account. This is a great area for a follow up book! 

What advice do you have for students who want their campuses to provide better accommodations for nursing moms?  Where should they start?

MV: Students should become familiar with the laws that support breastfeeding, and be prepared to ask questions. If the first person doesn’t know the answers, they should keep asking, especially before the baby is born, if possible. The best initial contacts are probably in human resources and/or the women’s centers for finding answers, supporting provisions, and knowing the policies to protect students’ rights to pump and breastfeed. They should consider convening a group of like-minded women to help get breastfeeding support programs up and running; grassroots groups can be very powerful. Also, student affairs offices often are interested in supporting students’ needs and may have the resources –  human and financial – to support a new breastfeeding campaign on campus.

MG: Agree with Michele Vancour! I would add that there are also online forums like Facebook for students to network and discuss this issue. I would also add that students should be persistent and reach out to local and state breastfeeding coalitions, local health departments and other groups such as La Leche League and their local International Board CertifiedLactation Consultants (IBCLCs).  Students will ideally find support that is culturally meaningful. Groups such as the Black Mothers BreastfeedingAssociation (BMBFA) and Reaching our Sisters Everywhere (ROSE) aim to reduce racial inequities in breastfeeding. This is an area that is very important for universities to be aware of so that breastfeeding policies do not marginalize students from non dominant racial and ethnic groups.  Best practices surrounding policies for breastfeeding students would ideally invite students to the policy-making table to ensure that their needs are reflected in the implementation of lactation policy.  Federal websites such as the Office on Women's Health also provide a wealth of information for students to share with university administrators who make the decisions.  The Business Case for Breastfeeding and Support for Nursing Moms in theWorkplace are two examples of where students can look for information. Finally, I would add that in our experience, university administrators are usually very interested in supporting students and faculty alike but they may not always know how to do that. The message is that students should reach out to receive the support they and their children deserve.