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The federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers provision of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act requires that employers provide reasonable break time for employees to express their milk during the work period. Women typically express their milk every 2 to 3 hours, or around 2–3 times per 8-hour work period. Women who work 12-hour shifts may need to express 3–4 times to maintain their milk production. It can take 15–20 minutes to express milk. This does not include time needed to get to and from the room, or the time needed to set up the breast pump.
A woman's need to express milk is temporary, limited by the duration of her breastfeeding experience. Frequency can vary depending on the baby's age, the woman's milk production, and other factors. She may need to express milk more often when her baby is going through a growth spurt. She may need to express milk less often as the baby grows and when the baby begins other foods.
Most nursing mothers express their milk during standard breaks and meal periods. The federal Break Time for Nursing Mothers law does not require employers to pay women for breaks needed to express milk. However, the U.S. Department of Labor advises that if paid breaks are provided by the company, then those breaks must continue to be paid if nursing moms use them to express milk at work.
A standard 15-minute break may not be long enough to express milk. This is especially true right after employees return to work from maternity leave, or if they have trouble relaxing. Relaxing helps a mother's milk flow better. Extra time may also be needed if she has a long walk to get to the milk expression area.
If extra time is needed, it can be tracked and provided as unpaid leave. Many employers allow women the flexibility to come in early or stay late to make up the time. Some employers allow women to adjust their meal break to make up time. Others do not track the extra time taken.
Some businesses have consistent periods of down time and ask nursing moms to take their milk expression breaks during these periods. In a restaurant, this might include time between busy meal periods. In a retail store, this could be mid-morning or mid-afternoon. Some businesses allow employees to work a split shift and leave during these slower periods. This enables them to directly breastfeed their baby at home and return to work for busy periods.
Providing coverage when employees are taking a milk expression break can be handled in various ways.
One hospital found a creative solution for coverage by simply removing charge nurses from the staffing count. They are then able to relieve other staff during meals and breaks.
Remember: Breaks are predictable; absences are not. Coverage can be planned for and can be far easier to accommodate than full-day absences due to a sick child.
Content last updated June 20, 2014.
Resources last updated April 15, 2014.