Breastfeeding in The Military and Other Non-Traditional Workplaces

Written by: Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC, LLLL

© Robyn Roche-Paull

When I work with mothers that are serving in the military, I hear time after time about the many challenges that they face from the moment the pregnancy test comes back positive to when they finally ‘hang up the horns’ from pumping. Some of these obstacles are what any employed mother might face, but others are definitely unique to the military culture or other non-traditional workplaces such as police, firefighting, construction, airline pilot, or long distance trucking, just to name a few.  Here then are a few of the more common challenges that can trip up even the most diehard and gung-ho of military mothers (and others) including:

Time to Pump: From working the flight schedule, either as ground crew or as a pilot, as a firefighter with no schedule at all, or as an air traffic controller with a console that must be monitored nonstop; mothers in the military or other non-traditional workplaces face the hardships of not having time to pump or not being able to pump on a steady schedule.

Place to Pump: Mothers in military find themselves in some pretty unique situations ranging from pumping in the back of an aircraft, or under a poncho while on the firing range, to shipping milk home from the sands of Afghanistan.  Creativity becomes paramount in finding suitable places to pump with a modicum of privacy!

Hazardous Materials exposure: Some mothers face the added dangers and stress of having to work around or with hazardous materials such as jet fuel, ammunition, oils, solvents, or paints in order to fulfill their job duties.

Deployments/Training/Traveling: Deployments lasting from a few days to 12 months or more are the name of the game while serving in the armed forces and can mean the difference between premature weaning or not.

Supervisor/Co-Worker/Rank Issues: Not surprisingly many of the non-traditional jobs are in male-dominated fields.  It will come as no surprise that many women in these jobs have unsupportive supervisors and/or co-workers who harass them and feel that the breastfeeding mother is getting something ‘special’ when requesting time to pump.  Also, rank issues between enlisted and officer all can combine to make breastfeeding difficult to say the least.

Uniforms: Uniforms are a fact of life in the military and para-military professions.  Not only is breastfeeding or pumping nearly impossible in certain uniforms, there also aren’t any regulations governing whether a mom is even allowed to breastfeed or pump while in uniform.  There are bullet-proof vests and other types of gear that can have an impact on breastfeeding and pumping to consider as well.

So given these seemingly insurmountable obstacles, how do mothers go on to be successful at breastfeeding? More importantly, how can you overcome these and other speed bumps so that you too can breastfeed your baby for as long you desire?

The key lies in attitude, information and support.   Your attitude is probably the biggest determinant of your success at breastfeeding in the military. All of the mothers I have helped have had the attitude that breastfeeding was just going to work, period. They also have a gung-ho, can-do spirit and a good dose of perseverance to boot. There was no trying, or thoughts that it might not work out. These moms went into it believing in themselves, their babies and their breasts.

As with most things related to breastfeeding, having the proper information allows you to make good choices and plan ahead.  While it is vital to your success to know the basics of breastfeeding and pumping, it is more important to know the regulations and policies of your service or workplace regarding breastfeeding and pumping. Have a plan written up before you speak with your supervisor or HR personnel, including when, where and how often you’ll need to pump. Know whom you need to talk to…who are the ‘gatekeepers’ at your workplace? Do you need to speak with the Training Officer or Logistics Officer, what about your Occupational Health representative if you’ll be working around HAZMAT?  Speak with your immediate supervisor or other gatekeepers BEFORE the birth of your baby.  Being an informed mother regarding your rights as a breastfeeding mother in the military can go along way towards making breastfeeding a success for you.

Last but certainly not least is lining up your support even before the baby arrives.  Call on your local IBCLC or La Leche League Leader for information on the basics of breastfeeding and any problems that might crop up.  Attend breastfeeding classes on base, and check out your local New Parent Support Team.  Talk with the baby’s father about his role in breastfeeding, he’ll be your biggest support after the baby is born!  Speak with co-workers and friends that have successfully breastfed while on active duty and think about starting or joining a breastfeeding support group.  Above all don’t be afraid to ask for help, the military is a 24/7 job and so too is breastfeeding.  We all need a helping hand and some encouragement to keep going when the going gets tough.

The same basics of breastfeeding apply to breastfeeding in the military or other non-traditional jobs including:

MILK SUPPLY: Your milk supply is dependent on how often milk is removed from your breasts, whether it is by a pump or your baby.  You should aim for at least 8 pumping sessions or breastfeeding sessions (or any combination thereof) in a 24 hour time period. Remember the saying “You must REMOVE milk to MAKE milk”. Whether that means you can only pump twice while at work but you manage 6-7 nursing sessions during your off-hours; or you can pump 4 times during the day and breastfeed 4 more times while at home, you need to aim for 8 in 24, if at all possible.  Consider co-sleeping and reverse-cycle feeding to boost your milk supply.  Mothers whose babies breastfeed during the nighttime hours have increased milk supplies due to the higher levels of prolactin (the milk making hormone) during the night hours.  By allowing your baby to sleep near or with you, you can more easily facilitate breastfeeding during those precious night hours.  Babies may take matters into their own hands by reverse-cycle feeding, that is breastfeeding heavily during the night hours and sleeping a lot during the day, which also means you don’t need to provide as much breastmilk for the daycare the next day!

PUMPING: Your pump is vitally important to the success of your breastfeeding while in the military or similar job speciality. If you don’t have a high quality, reliable pump your milk supply may falter due to the pump not being effective or pumping may be painful for you.  Do yourself a favor and spend the money on a new double-electric pump from a reputable manufacturer (and preferably one that abides by the WHO code).  Hygiea makes an excellent pump for working mothers that are WHO code compliant.

HAND EXPRESSION: Learn hand expression. You never know when the power might go out, you’re sent on an unexpected overnight TDY, or a pump piece breaks.  It happens, and knowing how to hand express will keep your milk supply intact and your milk flowing until you can get back home or the power returns.  Mothers have also found that hand expression combined with using a pump yields more milk.

BREASTFEEDING: When at work give bottles, when at home give the breast.  Breastfeeding is about more that just the milk, by using bottles ONLY while at work, you put the BREAST back in breastfeeding and help to cement that wonderful bond between you and your baby. It also helps to keep your milk supply up as your baby is the best pump available, and the skin contact and snuggling with your baby boosts your milk-making hormones too.

It is NOT all or nothing!

Whatever amount of breastmilk, for whatever amount of time that you can provide to your baby is wonderful.  While we would all love to give 100% of our breastmilk, 100% of the time…some times and in some situations it just isn’t possible.  Do the best you can for your baby, no one else has to walk in your (combat) boots!

Give yourself a big OORAH for breastfeeding, no matter if it’s 6 weeks, 6 months or 2 years! Breastfeeding in the military is not an easy task to accomplish, and any amount you can give your baby is to be celebrated. Remember, you are giving the breast for baby and country!

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Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC, LLLL

Robyn Roche-Paull, IBCLC and LLL Leader, is the Author of "Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military". In her practice she primarily helps military mothers balance returning to active duty while continuing to breastfeed. Robyn is not only an advocate for active duty military mothers who wish to combine breastfeeding with military service, she is also a US Navy Veteran who successfully breastfed her son for over a year while on active duty as an aircraft mechanic. Robyn is also heavily tattooed and has long been interested in the topic of body modifications and enjoys pursuing her interest both personally and professionally. She has written numerous articles on both subjects and can be found lecturing at breastfeeding education events around the United States. Robyn is the mother of 3 long-term breastfed children now 16, 13 and 9, and wife of 18 years to her husband, a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy.

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2 Responses to “Breastfeeding in The Military and Other Non-Traditional Workplaces”

  1. SadiaDoubleFun says:

    This sort of information is so necessary! My husband supervised a soldier, a very competent soldier and mother, who deployed, still engorged from having breastfed the 4-month-old she had to leave in the care of her sister when she and husband left for Afghanistan. I asked him to remind her to pack cabbage leaves! My husband had the experience of helping me breastfeed twins, but I suspect other supervisors might not be so supportive. I’ll point him to this article to share with the NCOs he works with.

  2. TiffanyPaddock says:

    I am Active Duty USAF and I honestly don’t think I would have done as well at breastfeeding if it wasn’t for all the resources the Air Force has made available to me. I had about 90% awesome support from supervision and was so happy to learn that the AF even had an AFI (Instruction) on what breastfeeding mothers must be given; i.e. time, place, etc.

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