In defense of pumping

Current Affairs, Family, Food & Drink

Every workday, around three times a day, I stand up, grab my computer from my desk and shuffle off into another small office (in WiFi range, luckily). I shut and lock the door behind me, and I get down to business. Most of my co-workers know where I’m going; those who don’t must wonder where I’m disappearing to. Sometime, I feel like I have a secret life.

Like thousands of other mothers of young children, I spend time behind closed doors expressing breast milk for my baby. Now 7 months old, he’s been drinking from a bottle during the weekdays ever since I went back to work 11 weeks after he was born. I’m writing about this in part because of a New Yorker article that got me thinking about the subject.

From the piece:

Today, breast pumps are such a ubiquitous personal accessory that they’re more like cell phones than like catheters. Last July, Stephen Colbert hooked up to a breast pump on “The Colbert Report.” In August, the Republican Vice-Presidential nominee, Sarah Palin, told People that she has often found herself having to “put down the BlackBerries and pick up the breast pump.” Pumps, in short, abound.

The point of the piece was that activism aimed at protecting pumping, or expressing breast milk, should instead be aimed at reforming maternity leave policies (or establishing workplace childcare centers) in the U.S. After all, in Canada, women get a year off, with pay, after their child is born. I’m pretty sure it’s the same in the U.K. The article contends that there isn’t much research to show that pumped breast milk is better for babies than formula — it says most studies have been done on actual breast feeding, where the baby is physically close to his/her mother.

While I think her point makes sense — it really is a travesty that we don’t place more importance, as a society, on this critical bonding period — it does seem that pumped breast milk has a heck of a lot of benefits. Here’s a 1996 article (free registration required) on Medscape titled “Breastfeeding: Unraveling the Mystery of Mother’s Milk.

From the abstract:

The composition of human breast milk includes growth factors, hormones, enzymes, and other substances that are immune-protective and foster proper growth and nutrition in the newborn. Research suggests that lactation is robust and that a mother’s breast milk is adequate in essential nutrients, even when her own nutrition is inadequate. Mature breast milk usually has constant levels of about 7g/dL carbohydrate and about 0.9g/dL proteins. But the composition of fats essential for neonatal growth, brain development, and retinal function varies according to a woman’s intake, the length of gestation, and the period of lactation. Vitamins and minerals also vary according to maternal intake. But even when these nutrients are lower in breast milk than in formulas, their higher bioactivity and bioavailability more nearly meet the complete needs of neonates than do even the best infant formulas. Also, in many instances human milk components compensate for immature function, such as a neonate’s inability to produce certain digestive enzymes, immunoglobulin A (IgA), taurine, nucleotides, and long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids.

This might be a crazy conclusion, but… how could they test these things and find out about the composition of human milk without it being expressed? If it was fed directly to the baby, it would have been impossible to measure, no?

I’m a little biased. I already admitted I’m a pumping mom. And I’ve gone to great lengths to keep it up. With my first child, I had to go down to my car every few hours. I’d hook my pump up to a cigarette lighter adapter, put up the windshield sun protector, drape a receiving blanket or two over the windows, and pump away. I did this even while attending conferences — I know where the “park your own car” parking garages are in San Francisco. I pumped in the bathroom at Google headqurters during a holiday party held for press and analysts. I pumped in a bathroom stall at Oakland airport. On a business trip to New York, my last stop before the airport was at a seller of dry ice, where I topped up my portable cooler — filled with breast milk I’d collected in my hotel room (and stored in a mini-fridge I’d had to request) during the week.

Given all this effort, I’ve got plenty of motivation to justify the benefits of pumped milk. But I wouldn’t have gone to such effort if I didn’t feel strongly that it is worth it. Besides the above biological mumbo-jumbo, the financial rationale alone — especially in the current economic climate — is pretty strong. Throw in factors like the acknowledged presence of melamine and cyanuric acid in US formula, and pumping in bathroom stalls becomes downright appealing.

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Resources for pumping moms:


If anyone has any more, add them in the comments and I’ll put them on this list.

2 comments… add one
  • Stephanie Jan 27, 2009

    Wow, Pamela, that’s awesome! Although I don’t have a child yet, I could see myself doing the same thing. And I agree, maternity leave is just way too short in the US. Moms have to make an executive decision – do I pursue my job and spend less time with my new born or do I just quit the job and deal with it later? That’s a question no woman should be asking herself.
    But yey for pumping!

  • Stephanie Jan 26, 2009

    Wow, Pamela, that’s awesome! Although I don’t have a child yet, I could see myself doing the same thing. And I agree, maternity leave is just way too short in the US. Moms have to make an executive decision – do I pursue my job and spend less time with my new born or do I just quit the job and deal with it later? That’s a question no woman should be asking herself.
    But yey for pumping!

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