The Other Backroom: Breast-Feeding on the Hill

There’s a new backroom on Capitol Hill: the lactation lounge.

These hidden gems are sprinkled throughout each of the House and Senate office buildings. Access is limited to the working mothers of young children who want to pump breast milk twice, sometimes three times, a day.

“It’s the new ‘backroom,’” said a Democratic House staffer, who, like many of the mothers interviewed for this article, declined to be named. “There is a line of women who come at the same times each day and you get to know one another. It’s one of the best-kept secrets on Capitol Hill.”

For working moms to maintain an active supply of milk — as well as provide milk while they are away — many of them “pump,” using a machine to extract breast milk. Pumping can take 10-30 minutes and usually requires some level of undress. The open-office cubicle, common in many Capitol Hill offices, will not suffice.

For mothers on the Hill, there is good news. The Capitol complex boasts 10 lactation spaces: four with 24-hour access and six within the current health units. Access to the suites requires minimal paperwork. A quick call to the Office of the Attending Physician and a signed form will activate a congressional ID to allow access to the 24-hour suites. This benefit is extended to credentialed reporters, Capitol Hill police, employees of Restaurant Associates and visitors upon request.

Moms Who Make It Work

Staffers interviewed for this article described pumping on international congressional and staff delegations, on the campaign trail with their bosses, at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference and the World Bank. All cited willingness and flexibility from their bosses to accommodate their schedules. And many were productive even while pumping.

“We were always working, even when we had to pump,” said Stacy Kerr, a former adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who is currently the assistant vice president of communications at Georgetown University. “If I knew I had things I needed to read, I could use that time. There was a network of other moms down there, and we would talk and take care of our mothering responsibilities at the same time. It was efficient.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies receive breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life and continue to breast-feed until their first birthday. Former Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin’s “Call to Action to Promote Breast-Feeding” identified workplace lactation lounges as one of the evidence-based actions needed to support breast-feeding.

“Offering ‘lactation lounges’ equipped with pumps is an excellent example,” said Marie Beam, one the D.C.-area leaders of La Leche League, a group dedicated to providing education and support for breast-feeding mothers. “The documented health benefits of breast-feeding translate into potential savings of billions of dollars in health costs, since those who are breast-fed will have lower rates of diabetes, obesity, cancer and many other health problems,” Beam said.

The Congressional Management Foundation estimates that at least a quarter of congressional staff have dependent children, and the relatively young age of many staffers means that at any point, new mothers need to pump breast milk. Lactation lounges also allow women to continue breast-feeding for their desired length of time.

Seven appears to be the magic number. “If mothers can make it past seven weeks while working, our survey shows they are more likely to continue breast-feeding for six to 12 months,” said Irene Zoppi, a clinical education specialist who conducted a 2007 survey of breast-feeding mothers with the National Women’s Health Resource.

“Pumping on the Hill was something I could do for my kids despite the demands of working full time. Even though I was not at home, I was still able to provide their food for the day, and that meant a lot to me,” said a foreign affairs legislative assistant in the Senate who pumped for her son and her twins while working in the Senate.

“I met with a young woman who wanted to do foreign policy on the Hill. She wanted to get into policy work before she had kids, so it wouldn’t affect her travel. But this is something you can do with kids, and also while pregnant or while pumping,” said the aide, who’d brought her own pumping equipment along on an overseas congressional delegation trip. “You can do it all, but you need help and support — and the lactation rooms are one form of that support.”

The New Lactation Lounges

Back in 2006, when Kerr returned to work after the birth of her first son, there was no dedicated lactation space for staffers.

“There were two of us in the leader’s office and one staffer in [Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer’s] office who all had babies at the same time. Pelosi’s chief of staff turned the chief-of-staff bathroom into a mini-lactation room. We put in a couch, comfy chairs, a mini-fridge and place to store our pumps,” Kerr said. “It was nice to have that dedicated space. And we would say that if the Dems won the majority, one of our legacy items would be to put a lactation room in the Capitol that everyone could use.”

Before the dedicated spaces, staffers relied on the Hill’s health units — affectionately known as the nurse’s office — to provide a private place to pump. But the health units had limited daytime hours and were occasionally closed for an hour at a time when nurses took breaks or had meetings. There were no options for staffers who had to stay late for committee markups or floor votes.

Often, staffers used an extension cord to plug their pumps into an outlet in a bathroom, or sometimes borrowed a chief of staff’s or member’s office as needed. A House staffer said she once pumped in her cube, after instructing her co-workers that no one was to walk into the backroom.

There are no statistics on how many staffers gave up breast-feeding before they wanted to, though lacking a proper place to pump is cited as a top reason why women stop, according to the National Women’s Health Resource Center.

In 2006, the Office of the Attending Physician opened the first dedicated lactation suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, complete with hospital grade pumps (staffers provide their own tubing, valves and bottles). A quick swipe with a registered staff ID opens the door in the Russell basement, where each private room has a pump, armchair, telephone, TV, refrigerator and sink.

“All you really need is a place to go,” said a Democratic House staffer. “I found it easy. By the time I was finished, there was such an increased demand that the rooms were getting crowded.”

In 2007, Pelosi ascended to the speakership, and one of her early accomplishments was to create dedicated lactation spaces with all-hours access in the Cannon and Ford office buildings and in the Capitol. Speaker John A. Boehner, R-Ohio, kept the suites in place and the Office of the Attending Physician says the lactation spaces are here to stay.

“Pelosi takes pride in the lactation rooms. Anytime she runs into someone that is pregnant she tells them about the lactation rooms,” said Drew Hammill, a Pelosi spokesman. At the recent Christmas party for congressional reporters, Pelosi was overheard telling an expecting mother about the lactation lounges. “It’s something she’s really proud of,” Hammill said.

“I’m a mom, too. I can tell you it’s a lifesaver,” said Salley Wood, spokeswoman for the Office of the Attending Physician.

Creating a Network

Most women heard of the lactation lounges through word of mouth. “The mom network is very strong,” said Kerr, who herself has spread the word and encouraged other women to take advantage of the lounges.

“I’ve told a lot of women about them,” said a Senate committee staffer who pumped for her three children while working on Capitol Hill. “Many of us on the Hill work for men, and they aren’t familiar with those resources.”

Ellen Nedrow, the scheduler for Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., started the Congressional Nursing Moms group in 2013, after talking with another mother while waiting to pump.

“We wanted a place to ask questions, share advice and talk. I decided to stop wishing it already existed and put up a sign about our first meeting,” Nedrow said.

The Nursing Moms group has an email list and meets for monthly lunches in the Capitol. Discussions revolve around nursing questions and “typical parenting topics like birthday parties, traveling with small children, recipes and of course sleep; [as well as] concerns that we all share as staffers, such as long days and late votes,” Nedrow said.

Growing Support for Breast-Feeding

Capitol Hill is not alone. Legislative changes have made workplace-dedicated lactation spaces more common. The Affordable Care Act amends the Fair Labor Standards Act to include provisions for workplace lactation spaces and reasonable break time. Employers must provide “a place” — other than a bathroom — that is shielded from view and free from intrusion. Many Capitol Hill staffers, though, are exempt because they are not covered by the FLSA. (This same exemption denies most Capitol Hill staff overtime pay as well.)

“We have a long way to go in meeting the goal of giving every baby the optimal start for good health with breast-feeding,” Beam said. “Establishing a ‘model workplace’ on Capitol Hill by providing a comfortable, private space and encouraging mothers to take time during their workday to be able to pump breast milk for their babies is an important step toward that goal.”