FORT BLISS, Texas — The Army issued a service-wide breastfeeding policy this week, making it the last military branch to implement guidelines for supporting nursing service members.
The two-page policy, which applies to active, Guard and Reserve members, takes effect immediately. The policy says command must provide designated spaces for soldiers to pump breast milk, whether they’re on base or doing field and mobility exercises. It leaves it up to soldiers and commanders to work out a schedule that balances the mother’s needs and mission readiness.
Army spokesman Lt. Col. Jerome Pionk said the policy is not prescriptive by design to allow for flexibility.
“This directive was specifically designed so soldiers and command can work together to come up with a situation that will balance the needs of the mother with the needs of the mission,” he said.
But breastfeeding advocates say without specific directives for duration and frequency of pumping breaks, it’s too vague to be useful.
“It’s a step forward and I’m glad they finally did something because they were the only ones who didn’t have anything on the books. But it’s not clear enough,” said U.S. Navy veteran Robyn Roche-Paull, who runs the Facebook group Breastfeeding in Combat Boots.
‘Much work to do’
Amid repeated calls for a formal policy, the Army announced in July it would review its practices to ensure they were in line with other military branches.
U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Massachusetts, proposed legislation this year calling for the Army to create a comprehensive policy that, at minimum, designates a private, clean area with electrical outlets for expressing milk, and an allowance for breaks.
Tsongas’ legislation was included in the National Defense Authorization Act, which was passed Thursday.
“As more doors open to servicewomen and a greater talent pool is tapped, the military must find ways to support all those who wear the uniform,” Tsongas said in a July column for Army Times. “There is much work to do but an Army breastfeeding policy symbolizes a step towards a more equitable military.”
Models of success
A viral photo of 10 soldiers from Fort Bliss breastfeeding in uniform renewed attention to challenges nursing soldiers face in balancing service with motherhood. The photo was taken to decorate the Fort Bliss lactation room, which was established as part of a comprehensive 22-page breastfeeding policy created by members of Fort Bliss and approved by Col. Richard Coffman, chief of staff, 1st Armored Division.
Roche-Paull cited the Fort Bliss policy as an example of a comprehensive model the Army could have followed. In addition to provisions for deferment from deployment (six months) and lactation room requirements (comfortable chair, table, electrical outlet), the Fort Bliss policy states breastfeeding soldiers should get breaks every two to three hours for 30 to 40 minutes at a time.
The broader Army policy does not include such specifics. It states soldiers who want to breastfeed upon return to duty must notify their chain of command to determine “how best to support them.” The Army policy says the amount time needed to express milk depends on factors including infant’s age, amount of milk produced, quality of pump and how far the lactation space is from the workplace. Lactation consultants will be on hand to help commanders and soldiers determine a schedule that balances “lactation support and readiness,” the policy says.
The policy also says commanders should designate a private space with access to an electrical outlet and water. If the designated space is in a bathroom, it must be a fully enclosed, separate area and not a toilet stall.
In contrast, the Air Force policy for breastfeeding and breast pumping grants breaks of 15 to 30 minutes every three to four hours. It also says “restrooms should not be considered an appropriate location for pumping,” similar to Navy and Marine Corps guidance, which say the pumping area should not be located in “a toilet space.”
Breastfeeding advocates would like to see policies closer to the Air Force’s to ensure the rights of nursing soldiers.
One line from the Army policy, “commanders and solders will balance lactation support and readiness,” could prove complicated, Roche-Paull said, by leaving it up to soldiers and their supervisors to work out a schedule.
“That pesky line about ‘readiness’ needs can pretty much trump anything Mom might need,” she said.
‘Operational reality’ a factor
While commending the Army for finally implementing a policy, followers of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots Facebook page echoed Roche-Paull’s concerns about lack of clarity.
“Agree, it’s shallow, leaves a lot to be questioned and too much wiggle room. But it *is* a start,” one Facebook follower wrote.
Others encouraged fellow service members to work with their commands to implement their own unit policies, as members of Fort Bliss did.
“It’s better than nothing, but ladies, this is where we take this and work on developing policies at our Divisions like the Fort Bliss ladies did that will be more specific and answer those vague areas! Keep the open dialog with your leadership and don’t give up!!!”
The broader Army policy was created with the “operational reality” of existing facilities in mind, Lt. Col. Pionk said.
As written, the policy lets individual units and commands determine the best approach to retrofitting facilities and creating lactation schedules, he said. Some garrisons are fully outfitted to American standards of comfort; conditions in facilities in foreign countries can be much more “austere,” he said.
“We needed to do something that would balance those considerations without putting too much of a cost burden on units,” he said. “Everything we’re trying to do is in reference to supporting all of our soldiers.”
Tsongas called the policy a “positive first step” but said more work lay ahead.
“This policy is a starting point from which we can continue to build to help dedicated American servicewomen to be the best soldiers and the best mothers that they can be.”