On this Memorial Day, a day set aside to honor those military personnel that have given the ultimate sacrifice to protect our freedoms, I’d like to take a moment to talk about some of the sacrifices that breastfeeding mothers in the military make every day to provide their children with their mother’s milk. Some of these sacrifices include the very freedoms that civilian breastfeeding mothers take for granted (and that our soldiers, sailors and airmen are fighting to protect!)
Mothers in the military who breastfeed their babies sacrifice a decent maternity leave, and in some cases that very short maternity leave ends up meaning they sacrifice breastfeeding altogether. While military mothers DO receive 6 weeks of paid leave, it is only 6 weeks and then they are back on full-time duty. Initiation rates for breastfeeding in the military hovers at around 65% percent, but quickly drops to 18% at the 6 week mark when most mothers give up breastfeeding. A sacrifice that they and their babies will make and one that may come back to haunt them later with increased illnesses and long-term diseases (Bartick 2010).
Breastfeeding military mothers work extremely long hours, sometimes 12-18 hours at a stretch, and then must come home and take care of all the household chores, clean and ready their pump for the next day and try to fit in some sleep somewhere. In order to maintain a high milk supply, many breastfeeding military mothers MUST pump during the nighttime hours, further sacrificing their sleep. They get up extra early to pump before PT, sacrificing even more sleep. Many moms also have to choose between eating and pumping during the workday since there is not time to do both, and usually eating is sacrificed so that mom can pump enough milk for the next day.
When a breastfeeding mother in the military needs to pump, she most often will not have a lactation room, and so must use a restroom, supply closet, or her personal vehicle. Here she sacrifices her comfort and a clean area with running water and electricity to provide her baby’s food. If mom is sent out on field training exercises or someplace where she has no access to refrigeration or a way to ship her milk home, mom will sacrifice her milk by pumping and dumping it (often onto the ground while she hand-expresses to relieve her fullness).
Many breastfeeding mothers are sent away on deployments and training exercises, saying goodbye to their still breastfeeding infants; praying that they have left enough milk behind, can pump enough while they are gone (and hope that they can ship it home) and that their baby will breastfeed again when they return. It is heart wrenching to sacrifice a wonderful breastfeeding relationship to a 3 week long training exercise…
Some breastfeeding mothers in the military sacrifice their dignity and comfort, when they are standing at parade rest for hours on end during a change of command ceremony, feeling their breasts fill to bursting (and possibly leaking) because they cannot take a break to pump.
Mothers have sacrificed breastfeeding due to not being able to pump while at work, either because they can’t keep their milk supply up or because their supervisor simply wouldn’t comply with the military policies. Others have sacrificed breastfeeding due to being reprimanded for breastfeeding at Medical or the CDC while in uniform.
Some mothers have sacrificed breastfeeding due to the repeated harassment from co-workers for being a ‘slacker’ and other rude comments.
Mothers in the military have sacrificed workplace promotions, decent evaluations or career enhancing duty stations due to wanting to provide their breastmilk (and not wanting it contaminated with HAZMAT, or risk being sent away on deployment).
Some have sacrificed promising careers in the military to stay home because the military simply would not support breastfeeding at all.
Why is this important? Because breastfeeding in the military affects military readiness (due to less absenteeism), and recruitment and retention rates of highly trained personnel. Mothers who feel supported by their chain of command and by the military as a whole are more likely to stay in (and tell their friends and co-workers to stay in as well). Breastfeeding is a major health policy and one that the Department of Defense should be supporting to its fullest.
Breastfeeding in the military IS a sacrifice worth making, many times over. But moms need information and support to be successful.
What other sacrifices do military mothers make in order to continue breastfeeding? Any you’d like to share?