A place of support

Friday, November 15, 2013 - 1:29pm

By Carrie Hildebrand

Perched on the edge of a cold toilet in a smelly public washroom while breastfeeding - it is a situation too many women find themselves in. But Marie-Rose Lesperance, a public health nurse and breastfeeding mother, knows that she won’t be banished to a washroom stall at work. At the Public Health office in Burnside, there is a designated space where she can breastfeed her son or express milk.

The room is in a quiet area of the building. It is softly lit and has comfortable chairs, a CD player, blankets and even a foam play mat. Lesperance said having access to a room like his makes it much easier to continue to breastfeed her son, Gabriel.

“It alleviates some of the challenges for me to continue to provide breast milk to my child even when I’m away from him,” she said. “It takes away a lot of stress to know that the room is there for me to use when I need it.”

In May 2013, Capital Health announced a policy that supports, promotes and protects breastfeeding at work. The policy outlines ways managers can help employees determine appropriate places and times for breastfeeding or pumping. It also explicitly notes that breastfeeding women need a more comfortable and suitable place than a washroom to feed or pump.

"An important part of supporting a culture of breastfeeding is having employers recognize the need for this type of policy,” said Laura Smith, Wellness and Respectful Workplace Promotion Co-ordinator at Capital Health. “Women shouldn’t have to choose between breastfeeding and returning to work, but the reality is that not having a policy in place that supports breastfeeding often does put them in that position.”

While the Burnside office has set a high standard with its breastfeeding room, supporting breastfeeding doesn’t have to be hard or complicated. Under the Staff Breastfeeding Policy, a suitable place could be an empty office or meeting room, or a different spot every day. Mothers at Capital Health can breastfeed anywhere, anytime and the Staff Breastfeeding Policy provides a list of suggested places.

Smith said the breastfeeding policy allows for a bridge between maternity leave and returning to work, and it shows that “being a mother can blend with your professional life.”

Providing better access to breastfeeding may also help improve infant and child health. Health Canada recommends babies be exclusively breastfeed for the first six months of life and it encourages continued breastfeeding even after the child starts eating solid foods, up to and beyond the child’s second birthday. In addition to nutrition, breastfeeding also provides other benefits, such as resistance to illness.

“The health benefits associated with breastfeeding are extensive - both for baby and mother,” said Lesperance. “One of the primary benefits is the passive immunity that it provides to the baby during the first six months of life. By breastfeeding your, baby you are also providing protection against illnesses, such as ear infections and asthma.

“Also, by receiving your annual flu vaccine, you are protecting your infant from exposure, as they are too young to receive the vaccine themselves.”

Despite the acknowledged health benefits associated with breastfeeding, mothers often fail to receive the encouragement that they need to feel confident in making that choice. Lesperance recalls one instance where she was met with hostility while breastfeeding in the relative privacy of her own car in a parking lot.

“A father shielded his son’s eyes as they passed my car and looked at me with such disapproval. No mother should be shamed for feeding her child, regardless of what method she chooses,” said Lesperance. “I think because there is so much social stigma around women’s breasts, breastfeeding mothers often feel they have to hide if they want to avoid negative reception from those around them. Making work a safe place to feed your child is a really important step towards normalizing breastfeeding and showing support for that choice.”