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.