Breastfeeding has been around since the dawn of time. It is the recommended feeding choice by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the first year. The World Health Organization recommends breastfeeding until age 2. While either formula or breastfeeding is an acceptable choice, breastfeeding often requires an additional set of support to allow for success.

Soldiers Breastfeeding
Photo courtesy of Tara Ruby

In mid-September 2015, a photo of 10 soldiers breastfeeding while in uniform on Fort Bliss went viral. Comments on the photos ranged from acceptance and applause, to chastising and chiding. It all started with Tara Ruby, a local photographer, who invited breastfeeding mothers to a photo shoot. The plan was to hang the photos in the 1st Armored Division Headquarters’ nursing room, called the Butterfly Room, a room specifically for pumping and breastfeeding mothers. Ruby recognized that this was not meant to be a political stance; after all, the photos were for a room only seen by breastfeeding mothers. The idea was support.

At the end of September 2015, the Army had said it was revising its breastfeeding policy.

The two events put breastfeeding at the center of a major debate, with mixed feelings. While mothers often make the choice to breastfeed or formula feed, both styles of feeding deserve support from friends, family and even employers. Support is especially necessary for breastfeeding mothers since they require time during a workday to express milk.

Breastfeeding is a biological action, not much different than using the restroom. While it can become painful to wait to use the restroom, the same happens when breastfeeding. Waiting causes painful engorgement that can lead to nursing troubles because of being overly full or medical issues like mastitis and clogged ducts. Mothers frequently express milk every 3-4 hours, mimicking the average infant feeding times. Missing even one pumping session can decrease milk production.

[Tweet “support all personnel who are breastfeeding while serving in the military @BFinCB “]

Each branch has drafted a set of services-wide breastfeeding policies and the content of each varies. The Army released the following directives on Sept. 30 that affect active-duty, National Guard and Reserve service members:

  • Soldiers who want to continue breastfeeding upon return to duty will notify their chain of command as soon as possible to allow the command to determine how best to support them.
  • Commanders will designate a private space with locking capabilities, an electrical outlet and access to a safe water source for Soldiers to express milk. If the designated space is within a restroom, it will be a fully enclosed, separate area designated for breastfeeding or expressing milk (that is, not a bathroom stall).
  • The time required to express breast milk varies and depends on several factors, including the age of the infant, amount of milk produced, quality of the pump and distance the pumping location is from the workplace, as well as how conveniently located the water source is from the pump location. Commanders and Soldiers will balance lactation support and readiness. Lactation consultants are available at military treatment facilities in this endeavor.
  • Soldiers must provide the equipment needed to pump and store their breast milk. Soldiers who are breastfeeding or expressing milk remain eligible for field training and mobility exercises. Commanders will provide private space for Soldiers to express milk during that time.
Breastfeeding in combat boots
Photo courtesy of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots

Robyn Roche-Paull, International Board Certified Lactation Consultant, Navy veteran, author and Executive Director of “Breastfeeding in Combat Boots,” believes the policy is a good first step, but it needs to be more specific. “I understand why the policy remains vague, so that the commander and service member can work out what is best, but this isn’t a perfect world,” Roche-Paull said. “It could play out as ‘readiness takes precedence.’”

Here are the concerns Roche-Paull has with the Army policy:

  • The policy still technically allows pumping in a restroom, which other branches and even the Affordable Care Act are against. “What if an enclosed bathroom space is not available or funds aren’t available to enclose a space in the restroom? Breastfeeding mothers could still be made to pump in the bathroom,” Roche-Paull said.
  • The memo does not state how many breaks a breastfeeding Soldier should be provided, at what intervals or for how long. “The Air Force policy lays out frequency and length of time. In an eight to twelve hour day, breastfeeding mothers would need to pump three or four times in that workday,” Roche-Paull said. The policy also states that timing could also be dependent on the child’s age, which is not always an accurate way of measuring how long it can take to pump. It also calls into question mothers who choose to breastfeed after one year and whether or not command staff will still offer support.
  • There is no clear indication of what equipment will be provided in unit nursing rooms.  The Army policy suggests that breastfeeding mothers are responsible for their equipment, but Roche-Paull is concerned that such a requirement may also mean mothers must provide refrigeration.

The requirements for the most basic nursing rooms would include a lock (preferably one that locks from the inside), an electrical outlet in the room, access to water and a refrigerator for storage while at work.

Some people question why mothers need a private space for pumping when mother’s often don’t seek a private space when physically breastfeeding their babies. “Pumping is much higher exposure than breastfeeding. The uniform blouse/coat must be unzipped, the undershirt pulled up, the nursing bra unhooked and the pump parts are clear, so there’s no hiding anything,” Roche-Paull said.

An ideal nursing room would include all of the basic requirements, Roche-Paull said, but also a mirror to ensure the uniform is squared away, tables and chairs, a pump already in the room (mothers only provide parts), a sink in the room, pamphlets on breastfeeding and even photos of breastfeeding mothers, like the Fort Bliss photo.

Roche-Paull breastfeeding in combat boots
Breastfeeding in Combat Boots

Roche-Paull understands what it means to be a nursing mom — she served in the United States Navy as an aircraft mechanic. She was the only female employee in the hangar, which had no privacy, she said. Roche-Paull worked with her commander to create her own policy. Years after her Navy service, Roche-Paull, who worked (and is still working) as a lactation consultant at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth in Virginia, realized that her problems with breastfeeding in uniform were still common. In 2009, she began writing “Breastfeeding in Combat Boots” to help mother breastfeeding mothers. She also started a Facebook page of the same name as she was writing, which is still in operation today. Her website also exists to “advocate, inform and support all active duty, guard and reserve personnel who are breastfeeding while serving in the military,” supplying information for breastfeeding mothers on how to pump at work, in the field, on temporary duty and more.

“There’s this idea that breastfeeding is unprofessional, degrading and dirty, but I don’t understand that reaction. [The Fort Bliss nursing photo] is what we need to see,” Roche-Paull said. “I believe it’s a beautiful picture and shows women that their lives as service members and mothers are compatible. They are able to be nurturing their children, but still serving their country.”

Update: The Army Times released a story on Oct. 20 announcing that the new Army breastfeeding policy may trump existing installation breastfeeding policies currently in effect. This means that installations that currently have policies may not remain in effect if commanders choose to implement their own policies. Fort Bliss, Texas, for example, which is seen as one of the ideal breastfeeding policies, allows breastfeeding mothers to pump every three to four hours two to three times per day for 30-40 minutes, according to the Army Times. That policy is currently under review.

Under the new Army directive, those policies could be changed by commanders if they choose to make changes. The Army directive was crafted loosely to allow commanders flexibility to make individual decisions for individual needs. Critics of the directive are concerned how narrowly commanders may craft those needs.

Paul Prince, a spokesman with the Army’s personnel branch (G1) said that the establishment of a pumping station in a bathroom is within federal law, according to the Army Times. Section 4207 of the Affordable Care Act, which became effective on March 23, 2010 and amended the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, says:

An employer shall provide (A) a reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for [one] year  after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk; and (B) a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.

Have you been successful at breastfeeding in the military?  Has your command been cooperative?  How has breastfeeding in the workplace affected you?  Leave your comments below.

Sarah PeacheySarah Peachey is a 20-something journalist from Pennsylvania, back in the Mid-Atlantic after voyages to the Deep South and Southwest. She lives with her husband, toddler and newborn. She began a career in journalism with The Fort Polk Guardian, an installation newspaper, winning three state awards for her work, and she now freelances for military spouse support sites and consults for MilitaryOneClick. She has a passion for politics and fiery debate. She considers herself a bookworm, pianist, wine enthusiast and crossword addict.