Time for breaks
The federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide reasonable break time for employees to express their milk or pump during the work period. Learn more about how to provide reasonable break time for nursing moms at work and other ways to support breastfeeding moms at your workplace.
What do I need to know about providing regular breaks to nursing employees?
Most nursing mothers pump 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 pump at work. The need to pump or express breastmilk is a biological need, similar to the need to eat or sleep.
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 employees to directly breastfeed their baby at home and return to work for busy periods. In this case, having a formal lactation policy helps all employees understand that a break to express milk, whether it’s pumped or a baby is directly breastfed, is required by law of most employers and that breastfeeding moms are not receiving special treatment. A formal lactation policy can state that milk expression breaks are only for the period of time that a mother is breastfeeding her child and will end when the child is weaned or no longer breastfeeding.
How often do nursing moms need breaks to pump?
Women typically pump every 2 to 3 hours, or around two to three times per 8-hour work period. Women who work 12-hour shifts may need to pump three to four times to maintain their milk production.
It can take 15 to 20 minutes to express milk, depending on the woman and the age of the baby. This does not include time needed to get to and from the pumping space or the time needed to set up and then clean the breast pump attachments after pumping. Studies show that most nursing mothers take just two to three breaks per 8-hour workday, for a total time of less than 1 hour per workday to pump.1
How should the expressed milk be handled or stored?
Human milk is food. It can be stored in a refrigerator or in a cooler in the same way other food is stored.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) do not classify human milk as a biohazard.2 Universal precautions are not required when handling human milk. Businesses can encourage nursing moms to wipe the area clean with antibacterial wipes after each use.
Restaurants may have strict policies for storing foods served to customers away from employee food. If so, an employee’s personal cooler can be used to store pumped milk until the employee gets home.
How can we support nursing moms who need extra time to pump?
A standard 15-minute break may not be long enough to express milk for some moms. This is especially true right after employees return to work from maternity leave. Using a breast pump takes practice, and some new moms need a few more minutes at the beginning. Also, a pump is not as efficient at removing milk from the breast as a baby. Pumping can also take longer if mothers 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 or if she has a manual pump instead of an electric pump.
The quickest way for a mother to express or pump breastmilk is by using a double electric hospital-grade pump in a private, comfortable, and relaxing lactation space. Some companies provide a more powerful pump in the lactation space. This helps employees who cannot afford the faster pumps on their own or who would have trouble carrying a breast pump into work and storing it during a shift. While most health insurance plans are required to provide a pump for breastfeeding mothers, the insurance-approved pump may not be fast or convenient. Manual or hand-powered pumps can be slower than double electric pumps.
If an employee needs extra time, 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, since breastfeeding while working usually happens for less than a year.
How can we make sure we have enough staff coverage while employees are taking lactation breaks?
Providing coverage when employees are taking a pumping break can be handled in various ways:
- Workers cover for one another as needed.
- The supervisor or manager provides coverage when an employee needs to be away from her work station.
- Designated floaters provide coverage when an employee is taking a break.
- The employer adjusts the employee’s work schedule to accommodate flexible nursing breaks when needed.
- Transportation employees are given a different route that can accommodate lactation breaks, or sales employees are given a different but equitable client list.
- Some employees may need different duties temporarily. For example, a bulletproof vest worn by police officers may interfere with milk expression, and it may not be possible to find private lactation space while on duty.
- Small businesses where the breastfeeding mother is the only employee present may need to post a “be right back” sign or phone message during pumping breaks.
Breaks are predictable; absences are not. On average, breastfed babies are healthier, less likely to get sick, and less likely to need doctor visits and medicines. Covering breaks can be planned for and accommodated more easily than full-day absences because of a sick child.
What are some options for giving nursing moms direct access to their babies?
A growing number of businesses make it possible for nursing mothers to breastfeed their infant during the workday. This can be a solution for businesses with limited space to express milk. Pumping is an acceptable solution for mothers who need to be at work for several hours, but many moms would prefer to breastfeed their baby in person.
Options for offering direct access to the baby during working hours include:
- Having a caregiver bring the baby to the employee for feedings. The mother takes her usual break when the baby arrives. The caregiver leaves with the baby and returns for the next feeding. Mothers may need a private area to feed their baby at work, especially if customers are in the work area. This private space can be a private office, a conference room, or other space. Some women keep their baby in a sling for discreet nursing at work. The mother may need to express milk during the work period for times when the baby is unable to come for feedings or when her schedule does not permit access to her baby.
- Allowing the employee to go home to nurse the baby. Employees should be given enough break time to allow them to travel to and from the baby. The extra travel time needs to be manageable for the employee. Open discussion and ongoing communication is critical. Employees may also need a private space at work to express milk when access to the baby is not possible.
- Allowing the employee to go to an on-site child care center. At some companies, the child care center contacts the employee when her baby is ready for a feeding. Some employees may prefer to schedule their work breaks for feedings. Allow the employee sufficient time to get to and from the child care center. Employees may also need a private space to express milk for times when they cannot feed their baby at the child care center.
- Allowing employees to telework. Some businesses allow employees to telework for a period of weeks or months after their baby is born. This enables women to return to paid employment sooner while remaining home with their young baby. A flexible combination of telework and on-site work for a period of time allows the mother to phase back to full-time on-site work. Usually, teleworking employees need to have a caregiver for the baby in the home while the employee works at home. The employee takes her usual breaks at home and feeds the baby during those breaks.
- Allowing the employee to have the baby at work full time. This may be a workable solution for women in appropriate work environments such as small retail stores or certain office settings. It may not be feasible for certain types of industries, such as manufacturing or hospital care. Most businesses set a limit of 6 to 12 months, or until the baby can crawl or walk. Mothers with a baby at work may need privacy for direct breastfeeding and an area to care for the baby. Clear communication between the supervisor, employee, and coworkers is critical. Many businesses find allowing babies at work full time to be an important part of a family-friendly platform.
What should I keep in mind if our business allows nursing moms to have direct access to their babies at work?
Businesses that accommodate direct access to babies report that employees and their babies are happier and more satisfied. Women also report that their milk production is higher. Babies are more effective and efficient than pumps at removing milk from the breast. The makeup of breastmilk changes every day to meet the baby’s needs for nutrition and provide protection from illnesses. This process works better when mothers can directly breastfeed their baby rather than pumping breastmilk.
If your business allows nursing moms to bring the baby to work, consider the following:
- Responsibilities. Employers and employees should identify clear mutual responsibilities, to help prevent misunderstandings about expectations. For example, employees may have the baby in the workplace only for feedings or all the time. Mothers should assume full responsibility for the child and not expect other employees to care for the baby at work. A mother should not bring a sick child to work with her. Employees who leave the work premises to feed the baby should have agreed-upon time limits with their supervisor. Sample responsibilities and other implementation information and assistance are available from the Parenting in the Workplace Institute.
- Liability. Some businesses ask employees to sign a release form when babies remain with the mother at the workplace. Sample release forms are available from the Parenting in the Workplace Institute. Liability insurance is also an option when the baby is at the workplace full time. Some companies ask that mothers who choose to bring their baby to work contribute the equivalent of a week’s child care expenses to help pay for the insurance premium.
- Length of time. Breastfeeding is a temporary need for employees and their infants. Direct access for feedings may be needed for a few weeks up to several months, depending on the needs of the business and the employee. Most companies suggest a limit of 6 to 12 months for babies to be at the workplace full time, or until the baby can crawl or walk.
- Privacy. An employee who has her baby with her at work may need privacy for breastfeeding. Some mothers are comfortable nursing in front of others. A company with concerns about nursing in front of customers or colleagues may arrange for privacy. The employee’s private office, a conference room, or a sling or nursing cover can provide privacy.
- Milk expression space. Some companies provide a space for a mother to express or pump milk at work even when she usually breastfeeds at work. This can be helpful because the infant may be unable to come to work on a particular day or the mother may have activities at work that prevent access to her baby. The lactation area can be enhanced to include a changing table and supplies to accommodate baby care.
Did we answer your question about providing break time for nursing moms at work?
For more information about breastfeeding in the workplace, call the OWH Helpline at 1-800-994-9662 or contact the following organizations:
- Slusser, W.M., Lange, L., Dickson, V., Hawkes, C., Cohen, R. (2004). Breast milk expression in the workplace: A look at frequency and time. Journal of Human Lactation; 20(2): 164–169.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Breastfeeding: Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs).