Why lactation rooms matter

This post is by UW graduate student Carrie Glenney, and is cross-posted from the UW biology graduate student blog Science Positive.

A lack of access to lactation rooms might be a widespread issue for women in academia. As demonstrated in the Biology Department at University of Washington, it can also be a relatively simple problem to solve. Ensuring lactation room access for all women in academia would send a very important message: we support you.

Although women make up more than 50% of science PhDs earned, they are more likely than men to leave the academic sciences at every stage on the way to obtaining a tenured position at a college or university. A study by Marc Goulden, Karie Frasch, and Mary Ann Mason suggests that becoming a mom may be one major determinant of this trend: married mothers with young children are less likely than both single and married women without young children, and 35% less likely than married fathers, to achieve tenure at a college or university.

Leaky pipeline

PhD students and post-docs specifically may face obstacles that make having a child feel antithetical to continuing in academia: a lack of paid and limited unpaid parental leave, limited affordable childcare, or lack of advisor or departmental support. Although many of these issues affect fathers as well as mothers, surveys with University of California post-doctoral scholars at both the beginning and end of their programs showed that of those who had children during their post-doc, women were twice as likely as men to change their career goal away from “professor with a research emphasis”.

Effect of Children on career 

Why does having a baby seem to hinder a woman’s academic career but not a man’s? What unique obstacles do female PhD students and post-docs with children face on the pathway to a career in academia?

I had my son during the third year of my PhD and I anticipated and experienced some of the issues addressed above. But the complete lack of one resource in particular surprised me the most. In many cases, this resource is actually a legal right. It’s relatively straightforward to provide. And I think mandating its presence in every department would go a long way towards making mothers in academia feel more accepted and supported.

Lactation rooms.

Returning to work after having or adopting a baby can be HARD, no matter where you work, and no matter how much you might love your job. You might be operating on a handful of hours of sleep a night. Your body might be still healing from childbirth. You might feel a mix of emotions about returning to work and physically being apart from your baby. You might not feel physically or emotionally ready to come back to work but at the same time feel that you don’t have a choice. And for those mothers who are able and chose to breastfeed, there’s the where, when, and how to navigate around pumping.

Logistically, continuing to breastfeed even when you’re not physically around your baby can be tricky. For those who aren’t familiar, here are some of the logistics. A woman’s body produces only the amount of milk it thinks the baby needs. The body forecasts how much milk it thinks it should make based on how much was used in the past. If less is used, less is made in the future. In order to convince your body to continue making the same amount of milk even when your baby isn’t around, you need to remove milk at least as frequently as your baby would (in the range of every 2 to 4 hours) and sometimes more often (because pumps don’t remove milk as efficiently as a baby). Pumping frequently and for enough time is important for maintaining milk production, but it’s also essential to prevent a very painful infection called mastitis. Once the milk is pumped, most moms store it in the fridge or freezer and it’s given to their baby through a bottle when the mom isn’t around to breastfeed. Removing the milk requires a pump (most women use electric pumps), plastic pieces that need to be washed after each use, cold storage, and a stress-free environment. 

The last requirement may surprise you. Milk flow actually requires the release of the hormone oxytocin (the “love” hormone), a process usually stimulated by baby. In the absence of baby, women use other methods to encourage milk flow (like looking at a photo of her baby), but stress, fatigue, or even being cold can make this very difficult. Therefore, a private, clean, comfortable space with a locking door is essential. Ideally, there is also a sink for washing parts, a fridge for milk storage, and desk space so work can continue if desired. Most PhD students and post-docs share an office with others so they cannot or understandably might not want to pump in their office. Often women are relegated to bathrooms to pump, but any place where you would not want to eat lunch is also not a place where a mom will want to pump milk for her baby. Pumping can take 10-30 minutes a session and has to happen every 2-4 hours, so location convenience is also an important factor for accessibility. 

Source: milkitkit.com

Source: milkitkit.com

When Hannah Kinmonth-Schultz (also a PhD student and mom) and I decided to ask the Biology Department for a lactation room, we first conducted a departmental survey to determine the need. We found that the need was far greater than we’d anticipated: 7 of the 86 total female respondents (8%) said they anticipated a need for a lactation room within the next 12 months or have a current need. 81% of respondents who already have children said they would have benefited from a departmental lactation room.  Convenience was an important factor: only 1 mom reported using the campus lactation facility located about a five minute walk away. Other moms used the bathroom (and one mom reported throwing all her milk away for sanitation purposes) or borrowed other people’s offices if they didn’t have their own. One mom commented, “I can’t tell you how many uncomfortable places I have pumped!”

need for lactation room

Beyond the need for a space to meet the physical needs of pumping moms, providing
an accessible lactation room for every mom in academia sends an important message: we support you and your family. Many women in academia who want to have children are hearing a different message: this is not the time or place for a baby. In addition to the implicit message sent by the lack of resources and support from the institution itself, many women may be discouraged outright by mentors, advisors, or even peers. I have had personal experiences with this* and I’m sure others have as well.  Academia is an environment where there’s often little distinction between “work” and “life”, let alone a balance, and it’s easy to feel like family planning should take the back burner or you’ll risk harming your career. So returning to work to find that the most basic of necessities, like a place to pump, aren’t available to you can make you feel like your choice to have a child is not supported. In addition, some advisors may not understand the importance of providing the time and physical space for pumping (although my advisor was wonderfully accommodating); or a female graduate student might feel understandably reticent about broaching the topic of breastfeeding with a male advisor. In the comment section of our departmental survey, one mom addressed the emotional toll of having no place to pump by saying “having a lactation room in the biology department while I was nursing would have gone a long way towards helping me feel accepted. I felt extreme guilt and very alone. As a result I think that my research progress suffered much more than it would have if impacted just by my new time constraints.” Another said “stopping pumping because of lack of convenient facilities was especially hard for me and not ideal for baby.” Even though breastfeeding is hard, many moms want to keep at it because it can have such wonderful benefits: money savings from not needing to buy formula (~$100/month), nutritional and immunity benefits for baby, and the baby-mother bonding that breastfeeding facilitates. Yet ¼ of the respondents in our survey said they quit breastfeeding earlier than they wanted to because they had nowhere to pump.

This is just a snapshot demonstrating the need for a lactation facility in one department at one university, but it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine that other departments have a similar scenario- and they may not even know it.

As Stanford University stated in 2006 “… a woman’s prime childbearing years are the same years she is likely to be in graduate school, doing postdoctoral training, and establishing herself in a career.” If we want to support women in academia, one of the most important things we can do is acknowledge that some will want to start their families during this timeand to support them when they do. I’m proud to be of a department that is taking steps in this direction by establishing a lactation room** (it should be available soon). Even when space is limited or money is tight, a little creativity can help convert a space to be used for this purpose. For example, our department is currently converting the departmental break room in the Kincaid building into a shared space that can function as a private lactation room during non-meal hours.

Of course, we need a multi-pronged approach to support women in academia and to support both women AND men who want to start families while in academia. Ensuring access to lactation rooms is only one step… but a meaningful one.

Other than the departmental survey we conducted last year, I don’t know of any studies that have been done to look at whether there is a widespread lack of access to lactation rooms in universities and colleges. In hopes of getting the dialogue about this issue rolling: if you are (or know of) someone*** at a university or college who needs a lactation room and doesn’t have access to one, or has a story about starting a lactation room at another department or institution, or just wants to lend your support, please visit our facebook group Lactademia.

* I would like to extend a thank you to my own advisor (Ben Kerr) and the Kerr lab. They have given me nothing but support, including moving offices around so I would have a place to pump. Thank you!

** Special thanks to all who helped make the UW Biology Department lactation room a reality:Hannah Kinmonth-Schultz, Diversity committee members Horacio de la Iglesia, Andrea Prado, Rose Ann Cattolico, Greg Wilson, Linda Martin-Morris, Sarah Eddy, Julian Avila, and Camilla Crifo; Executive committee members Toby Bradshaw, Michele Conrad, Carl Bergstrom, David Perkel, and Jennifer Ruesink; Graduate Program Director Marissa Heringer.

*** The issue of access to lactation rooms also affects lab technicians, faculty, and many others in the academic world. This article focuses primarily on post-docs and graduate students because those are the individuals I’ve interacted with the most about this issue and the levels of academia with which I am most familiar. But the ultimate goal is “access for all.”

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