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Nursing mothers must have refrigerator access under new Air Force rules

The Air Force has expanded the support nursing mothers must receive when lactating at work after having a new baby.

Nursing mothers now must have access to a refrigerator at their work place they can use to store their expressed breast milk, the service said in a Thursday release. And the new rules, spelled out in a memo dated Aug. 14, also increases the flexibility mothers must receive for lactation breaks.

Unit commanders are also required to identify a private area within the unit’s facilities as a lactation area. It must be lockable from the inside, be clean and sanitary, and have access to refrigeration, hot and cold water, and electrical outlets. The lactation area should also have adequate lighting and comfortable temperatures.

“Many women choose to continue breastfeeding after they return to work,” Christy Nolta, deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for reserve affairs and airman readiness, said in the release. “We should do what we can to support that choice, making it easier for nursing moms to continue to serve. Changes like these contribute to readiness, and improve quality of life for our service members and their families.”

The new guidance expands the policy the Air Force issued in August 2019 requiring nursing mothers to have dedicated space in the immediate vicinity of their workplace to pump breast milk.

But while those changes were welcomed, Nolta said, mothers in the field said more assistance was needed.

“Breastfeeding is incredibly important not only to the individual mother-baby dyad [and their care in the first three months post-partum], but also in the role it plays more broadly in the health of our women and children,” Lt. Col. Larissa Weir, a doctor of medicine and fellow at the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, said in the release. “Policies which support breastfeeding and promote increased duration of breastfeeding are policies which promote the overall health and readiness of our force.”

The Air Force’s Women’s Initiative Team collected feedback from the field on what kind of nursing guidance was needed, consulted with experts, and sent its recommendations to the service’s leadership.

The lactation areas can be either permanent or temporary, the memo said. Temporary lactation areas could include available offices, conference rooms, break rooms or other suitable rooms that provide privacy and meet other standards.

Restrooms, shower rooms and locker rooms cannot be used as lactation areas, the memo said.

The new guidance memo also details the responsibilities commanders have, and the procedural steps they must take, to support nursing mothers and meet their needs.

Supervisors must provide nursing mothers reasonable lactation breaks and enough time to use the lactation room while balancing the work schedule, the memo said, including time to drop the milk off at the refrigerator or other storage location.

The memo also said that, if possible, nursing mothers should have space to pump breast milk during field training and exercises. “If the requirements … permit,” the memo said, commanders should make sure nursing mothers have a clean, private space — not a restroom or latrine — to pump, the memo said. If there is enough space in the lactation area and all users agree, the memo said more than one nursing mother can use it at the same time.

Commanders should work with the medical officer supporting field training and exercises to see if storing or transporting milk will be possible, the memo said. If it’s not possible for the mother to transport her expressed milk back to her home station, the commander must give her time and space to express and discard the milk.

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