Sarah Marsh, MSW ’12, can relate to the anxiety new mothers often feel about returning to work, especially when they’re still breastfeeding. Marsh, who gave birth to her first child, Audrey Elaine, in December, still remembers the bit of panic she felt at a recent conference in Greensboro as she searched for a place to pump milk for her daughter. Everyone pointed her to the women’s bathroom.
“Of course, the only outlet was next to the sink,” recalled Marsh, a social research associate with the School of Social Work’s Jordan Institute for Families. “Fortunately, I had thought ahead and had brought my husband’s T-shirt with me. So I slipped it on and pumped, but I was still standing there in the open while other people came in and out to use the bathroom. I even had one little girl who stared at me funny and finally asked, ‘What is that?’ ”
While the moment might have offered an opportunity for public education, Marsh and other mothers at the School agreed, privacy is a valuable commodity for women who are still nursing and eager to continue breastfeeding after going back to work. Thanks to the efforts of School staff, Marsh, and other nursing faculty, staff, students and guests now have such a dedicated space.
As of this academic year, a private lactation room is now available for breastfeeding mothers on the second floor of Tate Turner Kuralt. The room, which must be reserved, comes equipped with a keyless entry and passcode lock, comfortable glider and footstool, dorm-sized refrigerator, bookcase, desk and chair, disinfectant wipes and hand sanitizer.
For expectant mothers such as Ph.D. student Charity Watkins, having a convenient place to pump within the School helps ease some of the stress of being a first-time parent.
“Just thinking about all you have to do to prepare to nurse, when you already have the struggle of working, as well as being a mother to a newborn, that’s very difficult and a lot to ask of a new mom,” said Watkins, who is due to give birth in February. “So having some assurance that my school will support me in that effort is nice.”
Such support also enables mothers to continue bonding with their infants, an experience that can be a little more challenging to maintain when returning to the workforce, Marsh added. In fact, research shows that the number one reason why women stop breastfeeding after going back to work is the difficulty in finding a private and convenient place to pump milk, especially when they work in busy offices or have to travel.
“I think if you want to keep women in the workforce and especially if you want to allow women the opportunity to continue their careers and to advance in their careers, they need places they can pump if they choose to have children,” Marsh said.
That there were very few options for nursing mothers at the School of Social Work gave staff in Student Services the traction they needed to advocate for the space, said Student Services Assistant Tiffany Carver. Before the lactation room was created, breastfeeding mothers often turned to faculty and staff members with private offices for assistance, Carver said. After realizing how many social work student mothers alone enroll each year, staff decided a lactation room was needed, and Carver began searching for the perfect place.
“Being a mother myself and seeing the need that we have, we just felt like it was something important that we should offer to people in our building,” Carver said. “So we thought, if there was a space, and we had room in our budget to allow us to buy the few items we needed, we just thought, ‘Why not?’ Let’s do it.’ ”
Staff eventually selected an unoccupied office on the second floor. Carver then began researching lactation rooms at the University—there are others in various buildings across campus—and the best way to transform a blank space into a comfortable spot that mothers could easily access. The room also had to meet the standards of the federal Affordable Care Act (ACA). The Act requires employers with at least 50 employees to provide a private place for nursing mothers to pump breast milk that is not in a restroom or common area.
During her research, Carver found that rooms across UNC’s campus vary in size and décor. Some offer a privacy curtain, working sink, a telephone, and a bulletin board for educational material. All rooms must be no more than 250 feet away from a sink with hot water. The School’s new room is just steps away from a women’s bathroom.
After some final prep work this spring, the School held a “soft opening” for its lactation room, with Marsh among the first to give it a try. Although she had an office at the time in the Jordan Institute’s second floor suite, its bank of windows didn’t provide the needed privacy for pumping milk. After returning from maternity leave, Marsh was thrilled to discover an appropriate space just down the hallway.
“Most mothers will tell you that leaving your baby is not an easy thing to do when they’re little,” said Marsh, who has since moved to a private office on the first floor. “And I’ll still get emotional just talking about it, but knowing that I can pump and still provide that milk for her even when I have to be away from her just makes me feel better.”
Although the room’s walls are still a little bare, Carver said she hopes to have a corkboard installed soon so that mothers can share personal photos of their babies. The room is still a work in progress, she said, but it’s functional, and that’s what matters most to moms in need.
“I really think that it’s one of the best investments that the School has made to accommodate the mothers who are here,” she said.
More on lactation resources and support at UNC.