Being a Breastfeeding Mother in the Military Means Making Sacrifices

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?


31 Responses to Being a Breastfeeding Mother in the Military Means Making Sacrifices

  1. Sacrificing study time for qualifications and advancement testing — I have to bring my study materials with me when I pump just to keep up.

  2. I like to remind active duty mothers that pumping takes about as much, or less, time away from the job as does the smoking of other Soldiers. I tell them to consider how much time their peers spend outside “smoking and joking”. Then I ask which of their superiors in the unit has told those Soldiers that they are taking away from the job due to their insistence on smoking. They always answer none, or they say that their supervisors are one of the smokers.

    This is when it starts to dawn on the women that they are not asking for something above and beyond, it is only that the perception is that they are. Of course, I also tell them to discuss with their commander (supervisors are fine, but commanders make final decisions with a broader impact) that they will be absent a lot less often due to having a sick child. A sick child takes a lot more time from the job when a Soldier has to leave to pick up the child, taking comp time or a day of leave to go home and care for that child, and probably more than one day. But, the smoking analogy is what really hits the target because it is clear that no unit has an answer for how much time they allow smokers to hang around outside doing nothing productive.

  3. Wow do I relate to this, and wish it had been a resource 9+ years ago when I was a nursing Army mom. Never felt comfortable nursing on base in case I ran into any of my soldiers or superiors. Only place I could pump at work was in our 1-stall bathroom. This was a run-down building on a TX base, no A/C reached the bathroom, no outlets, no shelving, no refrigeration, and no privacy (had to check with the other women before heading in there to camp out for 20 minutes, and it was situated just off the rather short main hallway – Bn Cdr, Sgt Major and all the rest could hear the pump sound from their offices). Leaked through my BDU top during the day-long Spur Ride and various motor pool inspections and equipment inventories. Stuck it out for 6 months until Stop Loss lifted and service obligation was up, but not sure I could have kept it up for any longer than that. Once I got out, my son was so used to the bottle that I had to keep pumping several times per day even though I was around more because he would reject my breast about half the time. He got breast milk for 15 months, never had to resort to formula (though we came close a few times when my pump’s ice packs failed in the TX heat), but it was about the hardest thing I’ve ever had to keep up. Kudos to the MANY service women who have it even harder than this and keep on BF-ing like the troopers they are!

  4. There is nothing wrong with breastfeeding in public or uniform perse, but it goes to the inappropriate image the woman on the left portrays. She is simply vulgar and has no class. Nothing offensive of mom on the right side of photo.

  5. While I commend these women for breast feeding and caring for their children, these women are out of uniform. If they wish to fee their children during lunch hours, then change clothes. Prior to a work day “on duty” and off,they should not be in uniform.

    • would you rather a baby cry because they are hungry waiting for mommy to change her clothes? try explaining that to an infant. geez

      • Actually it doesnt hurt a baby to cry. So it wont hurt those twin girls to wait a few minutes for mom to switch shirts and into a pair of shorts. Nanny or Papa whoever brought the girls should have given her a 5 minute heads up and she could have been ready no problem.

    • Is it really a rule that all soldiers have to change out of their uniforms to eat lunch? What utter foolishness.

      • No its not a rule!! You can eat lunch in uniform, you can not go into a bar or anything like you see on TV. You should not be doing personal things in your uniform if you are not on duty or are going in to work. Thats all,

  6. Iam a former USMC veteran. I am not a woman, but I donot see anything wrong with this. Where do you think a lot of service men came from. The women wanted into the military,so you need to make it possible for women to carry out women dutys. More power to you. You have my vote. lee parisi cpl. USMC viet nam vet.

  7. I am not a military mother, but I do have children and if the mother of the child wants to breastfeed then there is no reason to change clothes just to feed them thats crazy I remember when I would pick my twins up at the sitters after work, get home and get their bottles or what ever ready who has time to change clothes? I dont remember eating hot food that first 6 months. And guess what people I didnt breast feed, and I still dont have a problem with it.

    • And just for you people who want to gripe about me, my daughters were born at 26 weeks weighed 2 pounds and spent the first month and a half in the hospital, I didnt get a choice, would I have breast fed? I dont know, but if I did, I would be just like these ladies, working and feeding my children. Go gripe about something important instead of annoying a woman who is trying to work and raise a family they dont need preaching from the choir.

    • Gina you hit the problem on the head though…YOU were a civilian. YOU didnt put yourself out there for the world to see. These women did. If you have never worn the uniform then you cannot understand that it is a pride thing. Just as one isnt to go get drunk in uniform or go to the bank in uniform one is not to say HERE ARE MY BOOBS AMERICA! That is what the blonde is basically doing. Not to mention she is outside of work with no cover on. Which means she is out of full uniform… so she is showing lack of respect in multiple fronts.

      I HATED wearing my cover (hat) but the rules dictate it. IF you are outside of a military building you MUST have the cover on UNLESS it is an extremely windy day and the command has noted this (which rarely if ever happens I think it happened ONE time in my entire active duty service of 8 yrs).

      • Thank you AMYP finally someone with a honest answer , the uniform is a pride thing. you feel like you belong and take pride in looking respectful to other country’s.
        Not that will need a reason (more than they all ready do) to look down on us the U.S. How will it look if we seen the china military marching with a child on the womens breasts or any other country’s , would we feel that they are honorable or respectful? We didnt say that breastfeeding was disrespectful just not uniform and on duty.

  8. To those in uniform and breastfeeding MOMs – May god bless you and protect you while you protect our country – I am so tired of the bigotted people that believe that women should be seen and not hear, should hide their care of their children behind walls, that breast feeding is pornographic – for over 3 millon years women have taken care of their young so for those that hide behind their ‘morals’ that they try and impose on others – sounds more like the Taliban than Christian faith

    • Russ, No one is hiding our women behind walls and closed doors!! My wife was a awesome vet and I loved!!! But she would not disrespect the uniform like these ladies have, And YES she breastfeed!!!!

  9. Rock On!
    Thank you to all those active-duty and reservist mothers who make theses sacrifices.
    Not only are you making a difference in our world, our country, and your family, you are making a difference for every young woman who will follow behind you.
    Please, don’t give up the fight.
    When the battle gets overwhelming, call on a supportive LC, La Leche League Leader, or friend.
    We will be glad to thank you personally, encourage you, and just listen to you vent.
    We’ve come a LONG way, baby… but we ain’t there yet,

  10. Never in my wildest dreams would I ever have imagined a website like this existing! When I was an active duty combat-support branch junior officer in 1981, there was not even a maternity UNIFORM! I had to have some simple tailored long shirts made and a new nametag that read “1LT Doe”. Announcing my pregnancy was greeted with about the same acceptance as if I had told my commanding officer and peers that I was selling documents to the Russians!!

    Also…there were no breast pumps available for home use, only the horrid “bicyle horn” styles. I had to introduce formula when my son was 4 weeks old, before I had to return from leave at 6 weeks. I nursed at night and on weekends for as long as I could, but a 2 week FTX/ARTEP ended that.

    I resigned my commission the second I legally could (I was under scholarship obligation or I would have left due to the miserable harassment I was subject to…) When my second son was born three months later, I breastfed him until he was almost two.

    As my bumper sticker from the Woman’s Memorial in Arlington states so well…


    Keep up the good work, ladies. Us grandmas who used to be in uniform fought hard so you could do your job and be moms without needing to compromise either!!

  11. The photo of the two USAF personal in uniform breastfeeding is total unprofessional!
    I make this statement based on nearly 25 years of dedicated service in uniform as an USAF member myself.
    First and foremost this photo is not about breastfeeding nor do I have a problem with breastfeeding (my wife breastfeed both our children) it is a political statement, which makes it a violation of the UCMJ. It also is not the proper wear of the uniform again a violation of the UCMJ. If an individual wants to use the uniform in any fashion it has to put a positive light on the USAF, which by all the uproar it clearly doesn’t put a positive light on the USAF. What we have here is to young mothers who tried to do a good thing, but screwed up royally and should be receiving nonjudical punishment in the near future. We have seen several other cases where women have used their uniform in inappropriate ways (for magazines) and have been discharged from the military. This is no different and I will be very interested to see if the USAF maintains good order and discipline or sweeps this under the rug. I never even held my wife’s hand while in uniform or kissed her in public just to ensure I presented a positive USAF image while in uniform. By the way the UCMJ doesn’t separated in or out of uniform when it comes to presenting or reflecting a positive USAF.

    If these Airmen want to have the uniform policy changed they need to go about it the correct way, which is not by making a public statement. The UCMJ has many policies that should be updated but it has to be handled correctly and this has not been. I will put my money down based on my experience these to members will not receive any real/correct form of punishment based on preferential treatment women receive in the USAF.


  12. Okay, first my wife breast fed my son while serving on Active Duty at lackland Air Force Base. First you talk about maternity leave, at least you get leave, when my wife got out the military she only received 4 weeks and took 2 weeks unpaid. So please stop complaining!! Seconded it is your choice to breastfeed your child not the military’s so therefore you will have to make those sacrifices if thats what you choose to do! If your place of work will not help make sure you are not using the supply closet or a rest room, then speeak with your supervisor to help you out! Again its a choice!!! As far as working 12-18 hours a day, thats BS!! No one works 18 hours, its very rare anymore!!!! There is nothing wrong with breastfeeding in the military at all, the issue is the respect for it! The picture that is causing the big up roar is that these women decide to take this picture, tops unbutton, shirts up, no hat or beret on, breastfeeding at a park in uniform!!! Not RIGHT by no means!!!! Again we all make sacrifices in the military, but thats what we signed up for and thats what we have to do! I do not agree with everything in the military but I do respect what we do, did and have done!!!! And as far as you having to come home after working such long hours, and still do the daily chores, again it was your choice to have all those chores and thats what any parent has to do!!! So stop complaining about that as well.

  13. Something I never thought about, nor saw, during my 21 year career. All I can think of is so what. My wife breats fed both of our kids while I was on active duty (E4-E6).
    I have a rental property, my tenant is a 2LT, USMC, his wife breast feeds their child.
    Both women have breast fed in public, they just did it with a little dignity and foresight.
    To me it doesn’t matter what the Mom does for a living, or what she’s wearing – when the baby’s hungry it gets fed, end of story. Previous comments about the Airman feeding her twins as being unsightly are just full of crap. There is no possible way you can breast feed two kids at once without doing it the way the young lady is demonstrating. Other comments that they are being unprofessional having their photographs taken breast feeding in uniform is a UCMJ violation is hogwash. Maybe they could be charged, but going before a general-court with only one female member who is a Mom on the court would result in an acquittal. I do NOT feel they demeaned the uniform nor the military. As a matter of fact I applaud them.
    Jim Doran
    CWO4, USN RET)

  14. a male military spouse at Spousebuzz said “I’ve got to admit, as a guy, when I see a woman flop her boobie out so her baby can have a meal/snack, it still weirds me out.”

    as a retired soldier, I’ve got to tell you, whether the male is in uniform or not, his reaction is his choice and his alone. If males can’t find a way to accept a natural human act, that is their problem alone, in my opinion. Boobs are ok and not weirding them out during the sexual acts that created the infant in the first place, males need to find a way to deal with the mental dilemma that is theirs, and theirs alone.

    this same ManSpouse continues in his blog:

    “But it only took one mom who would not allow me to escape conversation to make me realize there was nothing weird about the situation. It was all in my head. There was and is nothing sexual about a mom feeding her child. The only people who make it sexual are those who haven’t got a clue. Because, honestly, is there anything more amazing than the fact a human being can provide everything a baby needs (love/affection/food) without having to go to a store?”

    The military does need to address this in regulations to put in writing reasonable guidelines that protect the uniform, implement, when possible, places for female soldiers to nurse infants if needed, and direct and educate the military community so that soldier/moms are not unjustly harassed by superiors who don’t know that there are new guidelines.

    the same ManSpouse continues:

    “Nearly every person in the world is considerate enough to be at least a little modest while feeding their child. That modesty comes in the form of feeding/pumping in a car, locker room, behind the closed door of an office or a host of other places out of view of the general public… The question coming out of all of this is whether or not it is right for a female servicemember, in uniform, to breastfeed her child. My answer, simply put, HELL YEAH it’s OK. As long as she has respect for those around her.”

    I do disagree with his next comment, however: “Now, should a woman attached to an infantry unit just whip it out and start feeding her child in front of all the guys? Ummm … no.”

    Location should not dictate whether the mom can feed her child, though, personally, I would likely feel uncomfortable under these circumstances and just prefer not to breast feed in front of a group of exclusively male colleagues. In this case, the command should provide a private space to use temporarily at least.

    “Discretion. It is an incredible thing. Luckily for us there is an honor and integrity that comes from wearing a US Military uniform. Discretion is something all servicemembers should have.” Very true. I think even nursing mom/service members can be cognizant of discretion and integrity in uniform. The trick is to find a reasonable middle ground that preserves that integrity and still allows moms to do what is natural and doctor-recommended.

  15. As a vet who breastfed 4 kids I take offense to the blond. The brunette is not showing the world she is nursing her baby. The blond is not even looking at her twins she is blatantly going HAHA LOOK AT ME! YES you can nurse discreetly even twins. I have a several friends who nursed twins discreetly in and out of uniform. It is possible. I nursed in uniform DISCREETLY. Heck even out of uniform I did it discreetly. I nursed for varying amounts of time from 8 wks to 2 1/2 yrs.

    Kudos to these women for breastfeeding, but seriously show some decorum you are representing our country in that uniform. The last thing I would ever deem appropriate is an US Military woman showing her boobs to the world as the blond is. No one can say she isnt because the way she is set up the MINUTE one of those babies pops off everyone will see full on boob. If she were doing it discreetly in say a football hold as soon as the baby pops off she could immediately drop her shirt to cover herself. It is unsat to be out in a public park out of uniform and baring your full on breast. The brunette should only face the consequence that again you are not in a cover therefore out of uniform. The blonde should face some further issues. Also as she is a weekend warrior seriously why is it that she cannot just pump. Obviously if someone could bring the girls to visit her someone could pick up the milk too. I pumped while going to school fulltime and just had ice packs to keep it cold while I finished my classes for the day. I planned it out and had no more than 3 classes a day. I would take two classes and pump then go back to class. Time span was 5-6 hours gone. I fed right before I left, pumped and fed as soon as I picked up my son. The day care got what was pumped. IT IS NOT HARD. If you dont like the big pumps try and AVENT Isis. Its a hand pump but I can tell you I got better results from that than I ever did with an electric double pump. I could do both sides and be done in less than 20 minutes with the lil hand pump.

  16. For the Marine that felt she had to hide her breast-feeding of her baby from the men in her unit, because she was concerned of the mental image it would leave them. My comment is to her is if the men in your unit cannot respect you for giving your better health in the act of breast-feeding your baby, or they cannot handle the mental image of you breast-feeding, then they will not be able to handle much worse images and situations that happens in combat. Breast-Feeding is a natural god given gift to babies health and well being, and neither women or men should be ashamed of a women breast-feeding their baby. It is not a disgrace to anyone, and should not be compared to the safety and health threat that defecating or urinating does in public places. Breast-Feeding is a healthy, safe, and natural god given gift to mothers,and fathers, and babies everywhere.

  17. Breast feeding in public is legal and therefore should be excepted in the military. On the other hand soldiers are held at a higher standard then the rest of us. That standard is dictated thru a chain of command. which may differ from base to base. I would sugest that if you practice a little modisty it might not even be an issue, although having your picture posted on a civilian web site partially out of uniform may just have forced a unplesent reaction from the higher ups that may adversely effect every future nursing mother in the service of their country. Way to go ladies.

  18. Bravo for bringing this issue to light. As the wife of a retired career officer, I had the freedom to breastfeed. It’s high time that breastfeeding is brought out of the closet and seen as a normal part of everyday life and nothing to raise an eyebrow about. I find it reprehensible that in the today article some compared it to urinatig in public!
    There is nothing unprofessional about nursing in uniform. For women in the service, it’s just a part of service life. What is best for baby is best for everyone!

  19. I do not see anything wrong with breast-feeding in uniform or out of uniform. Government promotes healthy child and states that breast-feeding is better than formula. If gays can dress in uniform, why can’t moms breast-feed in uniform? My daughter’s father who is in the military (Air National Guard)made me quit breast-feeding due to him wanting the girls every other day.

    • gays in uniform, Tammy? Really? There’s no correlation to the issue of breast feeding here. Sexuality has nothing to do with the action of breastfeeding while in uniform in public. As a retired soldier and an army wife, I think we need to focus on the issues of discretion and integrity of the uniform, while implementing reasonable guidelines for mother/service members to nurse their infants and educating the military community (command) about those new guidelines and regulations.

  20. Well here is something else for someone to complain about. Look at the world idiots. This is natural and who controls when they are hungry or where they are. This is the problem with our country falling apart. Someone always gets their feelings hurt or wants to go to court over crap. If they are not at work, in the field or training then get over your self people. Eveyday someone can complain about something and it is getting worse. Who complains the most, Americans. Who produces less then 12% of product now, Americans. Who can hold up I am too stressed in boot camp now, Americans. Who bends over backwards to make sure we don’t step on someones toes, Americans. Who are changing their hoidays and renaming crap, Americans. Go back to the 50’s, we produced more then 50% of all the product in the world. Our military was the toughfest in the world, not now. Take away all the electronic items and our men and women against the men of that time and the answer is clear the men and women would not make the freezing cold in Europe. We have a great country and a great military. Go back to being tough and less quick to bend over. People use to come to America legal, remember! Do some American history, not what they want to teach you. America watch Dodges commercial from the Super Bowl, not political but telling Americans all races, all creeds, stand up stop being everyones goat.

  21. Bravo, to you – its still ashame how ppl like to brush the reality in motherhood under the covers, it shouldnt matter if they’re in uniform or not, it still would be an issue to the fact of them breast feeding in the open… ancestors did it in the view of others – some even w/o covering – so why must it be and issue for the modern day mothers of today – women work soo hard and yet still belittle for the everyday, simple things we do… My hat is off to them for showing that no matter what they are doing professionally they still are mothers and have a family to tend too…

  22. Active duty women who feel they must breastfeed should get out of the military!!! If the job requires them to be on duty, they cannot leave to breast feed. Sometimes the children MUST come second. Any other attitude reflects badly on al military women.

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