Beginning on 1 August each year, the breastfeeding community comes together to celebrate the beautiful and natural act of feeding our children the way our bodies were designed to do. As a military member, and a mother, this can be more challenging compared to mothers who stay at home with their children and also to mothers who have more traditional jobs in the civilian sector. According to the World Health Organization, breastfeeding not only provides the best nutritional support for your child but it also enhances maternal bonding, stimulates psycho-social development, improves physical growth, reduces susceptibility to common childhood illness, improves immune system function, and also has long term benefits including increased performance and productivity and reduced risk of some non-communicable diseases.
The WHO also recommends exclusive breastfeeding for at least six months, followed by continued breastfeeding while offering complementary foods for up to two years or beyond. These goals may seem very doable for civilian women, but the military, especially the Army, makes it very challenging. In order to exclusively breastfeed for six months the WHO and UNICEF recommend several things:
- Initiation of breastfeeding within the first hour of life;
- Exclusive breastfeeding – that is, the infant only receives breastmilk without any additional food or drink, not even water;
- Breastfeeding on demand – that is, as often as the child wants, day and night;
- No use of bottles, teats or pacifiers.
Three of these recommendations present significant challenges for military mothers.
Exclusive breastfeeding – no formula – is the first. Many military mothers, after returning to work from the extremely limited maternity leave find themselves in a rather awkward position of having to explain to their (usually single male) supervisor why it is important that she be permitted to use her breast pump every 2-3 hours for 20 minutes. The Air Force, Navy, Marines, and Coast Guard do have regulations in place to ensure that mothers are given these opportunities. However, the Army does not. So many mothers in the Army, when faced with resistance or are flat out told that they will not be permitted due to “mission requirements” either give up pumping at work completely, or they pump as often as they can. Usually once after PT in the morning, once at lunch, and then if they manage to get a break at some other time they do it then as well. The result of these spontaneous pumping sessions is inevitably a reduction in milk supply, resulting in the use of formula to supplement. The second challenge, nursing on demand, is closely tied to the first challenge. In that, we aren’t with our child throughout the day and therefore cannot do so. If unable to pump at the same times that the child is eating, a decrease in supply occurs resulting in supplementation with formula. Third, of course, is no use of bottles or pacifiers. This is just not possible to do as a military mom. The child has to use one or they wouldn’t be able to eat after the end of the maternity leave.
I was very fortunate in my breastfeeding journey with my son. When I returned from my maternity leave, I also happened to be the Commander. I had my own office to provide privacy for pumping sessions, which I simply closed my door and ignored the knocks for 15 minutes. When the new commander arrived, and I became the XO again, we shared an office and it was a bit more challenging. I decided to commandeer the break room twice a day by putting a sign on the door to not be disturbed. I also pumped in my car quite often. Over my year of pumping I also pumped in an LMTV, a HUMMWV, a TMP van as well as the corner of an EST 2000 room. All not ideal places, but I kept myself covered and discrete as possible.
One of the biggest reasons I think I was able to make it to a year was that I simply did not care what anyone else said. I know that I was doing the right thing for my family, and I would stick up to anyone who would say otherwise. And as there is no regulation to guide commanders in the Army, my thought was that if they did not have a policy in place that did not allow for my pumping then by exclusion they must approve it. Because what command is going to put down in writing that they wouldn’t allow a mother to pump when it presents medical risks to not do so? I might not have been able to pump every single time that I needed to, as I remember several times having an aching chest as it had been hours and hours since I had pumped but due to what we were doing I just wasn’t able to get away, but I always did when I could. When my son was 10 months old we PCS-ed to a schoolhouse environment for me to attend a competitive course with my peers. It became even more difficult as I didn’t want to be seen as having preferential treatment for pumping (also a common fear among breast feeding mothers in the military) so I would only pump after PT and at lunch. Which, of course, lead to us weaning at a year. But a year of breastfeeding in the military is a huge milestone! I’m proud of what we accomplished, even if it isn’t the two years that the WHO recommends. If we could have gone longer, maybe we would have.
So this week, as you see military mothers passing by with newborns, infants, and even toddlers give them a little word of encouragement in their journey. Because this is a tough road that we are on, and positive words mean a lot. Encouraging breastfeeding is simply the right thing to do
I would also like to thank the Lactation Consultants who helped us on our journey. During the first eight weeks of my sons life, we had a really hard time with breastfeeding. We were battling with thrush, latch issues, oversupply, reflux, and fast letdown. Without the help of Dorothy, my lactation consultant “angel”, we probably wouldn’t have made it even past my six weeks of leave.
And another shout out to Robyn and her amazing book Breastfeeding in Combat Boots who gave tons of information on how to make it all happen while serving! I was able to meet Robyn last year when she came to speak at Madigan Army Medical Center, and she was very encouraging and positive. She gave a wonderful presentation to the medical providers on why it is so important to encourage breastfeeding and how low the numbers are in the military compared to the civilian world.