Emotional support from female co-workers plays a major role in whether or not new moms choose to keep breastfeeding after returning to work, according to a new study by researchers at Michigan State University (MSU) and Texas Christian University (TCU).

The study is the first to focus specifically on the effect female co-workers have on colleagues who want to continue breastfeeding by pumping milk at work.

The findings, published in the journal Health Communication, show that the more support women received from their colleagues, the more empowered they felt to continue breastfeeding. In fact, support from coworkers had an even stronger effect than support from partners, family or friends.

“In order to empower women to reach their goals and to continue breastfeeding, it’s critical to motivate all co-workers by offering verbal encouragement and practical help,” said Dr. Joanne Goldbort, an assistant professor in the College of Nursing at MSU, who collaborated with lead author Dr. Jie Zhuang at TCU.

According to Zhuang, people may assume that women in the workplace automatically encourage one another, but that often may not be the case.

The study involved 500 working mothers. Of these, 81 individuals reported they had never breastfed, and 80 had stopped breastfeeding before returning to work. Of those who continued breastfeeding after returning to work, more than half chose to give it up between the first and sixth month.

While the specific reasons for stopping weren’t tracked in the study, it did measure the women’s thoughts and feelings around co-worker perception and stigma, as well as how uncomfortable they felt about pumping milk at work.

Overall, the findings suggest that the act of simply returning to work played a major role in a woman’s decision to quit breastfeeding but that receiving colleague support was very influential for those who continued.

The study also found that more than a quarter of the women who originally decided to breastfeed made the decision because their place of employment created a helpful environment, such as providing a place to pump.

In addition, around 15 percent of the participants chose to continue breastfeeding after returning to work because they had co-workers or supervisors who directly motivated them to do so.

Goldbort indicated that multiple factors could play into why co-worker support is viewed as equally important, if not more important, to working moms.

“One factor could be that simply spending the majority of their time during the day with co-workers necessitates more support for breastfeeding success,” she said.

“In the workplace, a breastfeeding woman’s dependence on this is higher because she has to work collegially with co-workers, gain their support to assist with the times she’s away from her desk, and ultimately try to lessen the ‘you get a break and I don’t’ stigma.”

The World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest exclusive breastfeeding for the first six to 12 months and then continuing with supplementary feeding of solid foods up to two years of age or longer. Yet the number of moms who choose to continue to breastfeed remains lower than these recommendations.

Recently, the Trump Administration opposed the World Health Assembly’s resolution to promote the use of breast milk over formula. But years of research has shown that breastfeeding has significant nutritional benefits for babies and their development. It also has many advantages for the mother.

“If women know that co-workers and supervisors will support them in their breastfeeding efforts, it can make a big difference,” Goldbort said. “It really takes a village to breastfeed a baby.”

Source: Michigan State University