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Breastfeeding at Work. Is it Ever Appropriate?

Breastfeeding professor

There's a reason there's no bouncy seat in this room

By now you may have heard about American University Professor Adrienne Pine who was taken to task by the school newspaper, and now many in the mainstream media, for breastfeeding her baby in the middle of her class in front of 40 students. The story is a nutshell is this — Ms. Pine is a single mother, her baby was sick and not able to go to her regular day care center, so the professor brought her to class and nursed her when she got fussy. Some students shared this with the school newspaper, which pursued the story. The professor professed to have felt extremely violated for being exposed by the paper for this action. She says she didn’t realize “the degree to which people are afraid of breasts in this country and in particular in the workplace.” But I feel the professor needs to be enlightened. As I think Kate Middleton can unfortunately attest, people are much more fascinated and intrigued by breasts than they are afraid of them. And, at least as far as I see it, this issue has nothing to do with Professor Pine’s breasts. I couldn’t care less whether she was breastfeeding mid-lecture or stopped to prepare her sick baby a bowl of oatmeal or change a diaper. It’s simply not appropriate to be caring for your child, especially a sick one, at work. Period. She needed to find another solution. As a professor, she was lucky to have the option of cancelling or rescheduling the class, among other choices. That may not have been ideal, but it’s life. You’re not going to see a surgeon bring her baby into the operating room because the nanny called in sick. You’re not likely to see a police officer strap a car seat into the patrol car because the day care center was closed. And I have yet to see anyone in my very family-friendly workplace bring a sick child into a meeting or presentation at any time.

I can completely sympathize with the plight, frustration and difficulty of juggling a sick child and work obligations. My daughter was sick so often in her first winter that from late November to early March there was not one single week that she was able to attend her child care center for all five days. With my son we had to be extra cautious due to his heart condition, and I knew I would have three full weeks he would be out sick for surgery and recovery – and that was before even allowing for the standard stomach bug, ear infection and the like. It stinks. You are sleep deprived, of course, because your sick baby is not sleeping through the night. You are frustrated because you’re certain the child care center’s thermometer is the only one that seems to be recording a significant fever. You’re jealous of all those people who seem to have 17 grandparents, all of whom live around the corner and are knocking down the door to care for their child at a moment’s notice.

But you’re a working parent. And while the obligation you have to your child is paramount, you also have obligations to your co-workers, your clients, your patients, your constituents, your students. When life throws you a curve, you need to call in reinforcements at work and at home. You need to avail yourself of the appropriate solutions at your disposal. And just as you should put down the blackberry when it’s time to focus on your kids, you should also generally put down the baby when it’s time to focus on your work. There is no doubt that for all the good choices you make a bad one may sneak in. But when it does, own it and learn from it, and for goodness sake don’t blame it on society’s fear of your body parts.


  1. Bridget September 24, 2012 at 3:07 pm

    I once taught (elementary school specialist) for a week with an infant in an Ergo. However, he was not contagious (daycare exclusion for a blocked tear duct), I had a sub with me at all times so I could leave the room if he woke up for fussed, and I never, ever changed or breastfed him in front of kids. I really appreciated my employer’s flexibility that week and I’d hate to have lose that flexibility over someone in the news who couldn’t figure out what the limits are.

  2. ProgressiveMom September 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    I have to say that just hearing this story on the radio, I was on the side of the professor…but now that I’ve read this, I’ve changed my mind. I think you’re right. I have worked from home with a sick child so may be hypocritical in my thinking. Is there a difference?

  3. MediaMom September 25, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    ProgressiveMom, I think there’s a big difference between working from home when you’re baby is sick and bringing your sick baby with you to while you present to a group of clients, students, co-workers or any situation where you should be giving direct attention to someone else. If you can work from home and take care of business while your baby is sleeping or otherwise occupied, that’s great. You may even be able to sneak on a conference call that you’re not leading, while feeding your baby. But when you’re responsible for leading a presentation or lecture or discussion, etc., it’s not the time to be splitting your attention, in my opinion.
    As Bridget mentions, it’s great to have understanding and flexible work environments, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t limits.

  4. Profile photo of Amy

    Amy September 26, 2012 at 1:49 pm

    I had the same reaction as you, MediaMom. As a working mom who made the decision to breastfeed, I couldn’t imagine being in a presentation of any sort and having to stop to breastfeed. Working at home on a conference call is another story.

    When my oldest was little I was teaching children’s cooking classes. A couple of times I had to bring my daughter (1-1.5 years) to class with me. Even though the class was geared towards young kids and she was very occupied eating the food we were making and it was only an hour class, it still was distracting to have her there. And I was always worried that something would happen (like a crying fit) that would require me to step out of class and prevent me from delivering my service – which is a fun interactive cooking class that my students had paid to be at.

    I feel lucky that I have consistent care for my baby. But if something came up I would definitely find an alternative solution than bring him to a work meeting.

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