Breastfeeding in Uniform….It’s All About Support, Baby

Photo illustration by Joni Rae of Jonirae.com
Photo illustration by Joni Rae of Jonirae.com

By now everyone has seen the infamous photographs of two Air National Guard women breastfeeding their babies. The photographs were posted on this website on May 21st as part of blog post asking whether breastfeeding in uniform was acceptable and why I thought the Department of Defense should change the uniform regulations to accomodate military women who choose to breastfeed. In the ensuing days the photo went viral on Facebook and over Memorial Day weekend my blog post started getting massive hits. Then Tuesday morning the national media picked up the story and it spread like wildfire over the internet, tv and newspapers worldwide. Unfortunately the media skewed the facts behind the photos and the original message was lost.

And that message was one of support. The photographs were taken as part of breastfeeding campaign, designed to help both increase the rates of breastfeeding among civilian and military women at Fairchild Air Force base in Washington, and to offer support to all the military moms on base who already are breastfeeding. They were taken by Mom2Mom Breastfeeding Support Group and Byrnja Photography, and were going to be used for their World Breastfeeding Week celebrations later this summer. The coordinator of the group and the photographer wanted to PROMOTE, PROTECT and EDUCATE people about breastfeeding and provide support for the many untold and unseen mothers who are breastfeeding, everyday, in or out of uniform. Nothing more, nothing less. Research has shown that exposure to breastfeeding (through photos, stories, and in-person) positively affects and influences women’s breastfeeding intentions and success. In other words, mothers who see other mothers successfully breastfeeding, go on to be successful themselves (1,2). This is of particular importance in the military, where mothers breastfeeding are NOT seen and far too many women quit at 6 weeks because they think it is not possible to combine military service and breastfeeding. But more on that later. The idea behind the photographs was simply to show that breastfeeding can be done while serving one’s country.

But instead the photos created a huge controversy, and one that NONE of us were expecting. Of course the issue of breastfeeding in public was at the top of the list, regardless of whether the women were wearing a uniform or not. But the majority of the controversy seemed to revolve around the issue of breastfeeding in uniform and how it is against the regulations. What is interesting about this is that the military, in particular the Air Force, has gone on record to state that there is no actual regulation approving or forbidding women from breastfeeding in uniform (just like I said in my original post and the Breastfeeding in Uniform page):

DOD spokeswoman Eileen Lainez said: “The DOD policy on uniform doesn’t address that.”

Captain Rose Richeson, a spokeswoman for the Air Force, gave a similar answer: “We actually don’t have a policy in place that addresses breastfeeding in uniform.”

However the Internet was a firestorm of comments swirling around the fact that any woman breastfeeding in uniform must unbutton, unzip and untuck her uniform in order to breastfeed and that is against regs as well as how breastfeeding in uniform is not professional looking and is not in keeping with honoring the uniform or maintaining military decorum. While I agree that having ones uniform unbuttoned and t-shirt untucked does make one ‘out-of-uniform’ and could be seen as against the regs in a very strict interpretation, it is also unavoidable when breastfeeding, and is easily fixed with a change to the uniforms and/or the uniform regulations. Make a breastfeeding uniform blouse (like the civilian shirts with slits) or a regulation cover-up. And incorporate into the regulations and policies already in place that breastfeeding women, when at a medical appointment with the baby or at the CDC on lunch break, are allowed to breastfeed in uniform. Pretty simple, right? As for professionalism and military decorum? Tell me how bottlefeeding a baby and or having a blanket with teddy bears on it covering you up is considered professional by any stretch of the imagination (or one of many of the unprofessional things I see men doing in uniform).  And while I admit to having a ‘whoa’ moment when I first saw the photos, my first reaction was that neither of the women had their covers (hats) on while outside. Only then did I noticed the moms of twins with her shirt hiked up. I do agree that the mom of twins could have covered up and adjusted her uniform a bit more and they both should have been wearing their headgear. But it should be also noted that this is not how women in uniform look when they breastfeed their babies while waiting at the medical clinic or during their lunch break at the CDC.  This was a staged photo shoot, remember? Furthermore, most of the time military mothers will not have their babies with them at the workplace. But during the occasional circumstance when it is necessary, mothers in uniform NEED some sort of black and white guidelines that spell out what, when, where and how they can breastfeed in uniform.

The other part of the controversy, and the one that the DoD and military brass were more concerned about, was the issue of whether the women were ‘promoting’ a cause. The official military stance on the photos is that women in the photo are in violation of using the uniform, breastfeeding or not, to promote a cause or ideology and how that is against military regulations. Apparently breastfeeding is a cause and/or an ideology, but I don’t have the time nor the space to delve further into this issue.  Although I do have to wonder how promoting a healthy behavior, such as breastfeeding, is wrong.  And whether the military sees bottle-feeding as a cause or an ideology (lots of photos of mothers and fathers out there in cyberspace and on Facebook bottle-feeding in uniform). See this wonderful post by PhD in Parenting and her take on this aspect of the issue. By the way, the women in the photo will not be reprimanded, however the incident will be used for ‘educational’ purposes.

More interesting to me were the repeated statements made during this controversy by the DoD about how the military DOES support breastfeeding. I beg to differ. While each of military branches may have a policy regarding breastfeeding, with the exception of the Army which doesn’t have one at all, they are not being enforced nor followed.  Very few commands have a dedicated lactation room for mothers to use to pump, and instead they are forced to use restrooms, boiler rooms and supply closets.  Due to operational commitments, the 15-30 minutes allotted by the policy for pumping breaks are often denied.  And while each of the military branches offers a deferment from deployment ranging from 6-12 months, loopholes exists and mothers with breastfeeding infants are sent away before the allotted time. Get my drift here?  And so yes, when a mother is with her baby at a medical appointment or on her lunch break at the CDC and her baby needs to eat, and she proceeds to breastfeed, in uniform, she can and often does get reprimanded.  And that is NOT being supportive of breastfeeding.  Which brings us back to the reason why the photos were taken in the first place and my reason for writing the original blog post. And that reason is supporting the mothers who choose to both serve their country and breastfeed their babies.

The DoD has a problem on it’s hands, but one that is easily fixed.  Nearly 43% of women in military are mothers, and 22% of the children born to them are newborn to 2 years old.  The vast majority of women in the military are in their prime childbearing years, creating a huge potential population of women in the military that might choose to breastfeed (3). In fact breastfeeding rates are up in the military as more health care providers are recommending it due to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) statement that children be breastfed exclusively for 6 months, and up to 12 months or as long as mutually desired (4). Furthermore the DoD is mandated to follow the Healthy People guidelines, of which a core component is breastfeeding.  Unfortunately, breastfeeding duration rates are very low, and drop off precipitously at the 6 week mark and are virtually nonexistent at 6 months.  Why?  Because even though the military says it supports breastfeeding, in reality it does not. It is partly due to the reasons outlined in the paragraph above, but also because mothers in the military NEVER see another mother breastfeeding.  Remember that study I mentioned at the beginning of this post?  Breastfeeding mothers need support from the DoD, yes; but also from seeing other breastfeeding mothers around them, in uniform, to be successful.  Just what those ‘controversial’ photos were trying to accomplish.

So it seems to me that it would be in the best interest of the Department of Defense to come up with a policy that is consistent across ALL the branches of the military regarding breastfeeding and pumping, but also one that specifically addresses breastfeeding in uniform. Because breastfeeding is not only a health and safety issue, but an economic issue for the DoD. Supporting breastfeeding by creating regulations regarding breastfeeding in uniform and also enforcing the current policies in place regarding breastfeeding and pumping will lead to increased morale and increased retention among mothers currently serving, as well as decreased health care costs (due to less illnesses among breastfed babies). Breastfeeding mothers lose weight and get in shape faster, and miss fewer duty days due to having a healthier baby, which results in increased mission readiness and less absenteeism (5, 6). Breastfeeding mothers in the military will feel supported in their efforts.  It’s a win-win situation for the military and for mothers and babies. And it all comes back to supporting the breastfeeding mothers who are both serving their country and giving the best to their babies. Something that those beautiful photos were simply trying to do.

1. Angeletti, M.A. (2009). Breastfeeding mothers returning to work: Possibilities for information, anticipatory guidance and support from U.S. health care professionals. Journal of Human Lactation, 25, 226-232.
2. Meedya, s., Fahy, K., & Kable, A. (2010). Factors that positively influence breastfeeding duration to 6 months: A literature review. Women and birth: Journal of the Australian College of Midwives, 23(4), 135-145.
3. Defense, D. o. (2009a). Demographics 2009: Profile of the military community. Retrieved from http://www.militaryhomefront.dod.mil/12038/Project Documents/MilitaryHOMEFRONT/QOL Resources/Reports/2009_Demographics_Report.pdf.
4. Pediatrics, American Academy of. (2012). Breastfeeding and the use of human milk. Pediatrics, 129(3), e827-841.
5. Bell, M., & Ritchie, E. (2003). Breastfeeding in the military: part I. Information and resources provided to service women. Mil Med, 168(10), 807-812.
6. Bell, M. R., & Ritchie, E. C. (2003). Breastfeeding in the military: Part II. Resource and policy considerations. Mil Med, 168(10), 813-816.

 

22 Responses to Breastfeeding in Uniform….It’s All About Support, Baby


  1. If they can make maternity battle dress and dress uniforms (tent shirts, elastic pants and sneakers) they should def be able to come up with nursing uniform top of some sort. if only i could sew and come up with a good option 🙂


  2. Robyn, I want to thank you for being the voice for all the women who struggle with this everyday. A girl I know has has BF taken from her even before the baby is born because she is tasked to deploy. It make me wonder I the AF really supports BF for a yr according to 44-102 than why is the deployment deferment only 6 months.


  3. I am active duty army and go back to work in 2 weeks after having my 2nd baby and I am terrified of the impact it will have on our nursing relationship because I have this sinking feeling they are going to try and deny me any pumping breaks. Our bathroom doesn’t even have outlets so my only other option is my car.. I just find it ridiculous and terribly upsetting how unsupportive people can be. Luckily I only have a couple of months left and will be ETSing and just have to deal with it for a short time.. :-/


    • Shannon,
      I hope you ahve had a convirsation with your leardership about your desire to continue nursing and what is legally required of them. Clean room to pump, breaks needed, and approximate length of breaks. If you give them a heads up you might get lucky and have a bit more support from them.

      I was in teh reserves–big difference I know–but even on our two week training time, my leadership did the best they could with getting me breaks. I didn’t always have a clean area to pump, or private but I chose to stick with it and I’m glad I did.

      As for no plug, you might have to hand express or get a hand pump.
      I hope your command gives you the support you need to continue breastfeeding your baby.


  4. I am active duty army and go back to work in 2 weeks after having my 2nd baby and I am terrified of the impact it will have on our nursing relationship because I have this sinking feeling they are going to try and deny me any pumping breaks. Our bathroom doesn’t even have outlets so my only other option is my car.. I just find it ridiculous and terribly upsetting how unsupportive people can be. Luckily I only have a couple of months left and will be ETSing and just have to deal with it for a short time..


  5. Thank you for writing this. I completely agree that more support is needed for breastfeeding in the military. I have seen too many breastfeeding mothers around me give up shortly after 6 weeks because they just couldn’t make it work or find the support necessary within our system. I was lucky enough to 1) have my own office = a defacto private place to pump, and 2) find ONE other mother (also with her own office) who was persistant in her breastfeeding so we could support each other.

    Breastfeeding support in the military is very, very poor – largely due to misunderstandings and and a culture that discourages discussion of “women’s issues.”

    I could go on and on about this. It is such an easy, obvious thing, and yet such an uphill battle. In a year, I will be leaving the Marine Corps because it conflicts too much with the way I want to care for my children – not the schedule or difficulty of the job, but the inherent bias against involved motherhood.

    Lastly, an undershirt with slits for nursing would be AMAZING. I think I might just make one. Heaven knows untucking to nurse my now 20 month old son is a pain.


    • This article ROCKS! And so do the responses!! You should have seen what the USMC did & what they said in the early 80’s :/ A-HOLES, ALL of them. I have to say, I was one of 3 female Marines at the time, in our platoon of 40. I had to actually go & hide myself in a dirty little closet & after MANUALLY doing the deed, I had to HIDE the plastic sacks Inside a paper bag & THAT had to be stashed into our platoon’s battery storage refridgerator & HAD to be taken out before each day’s end. Forget about trying to even find a place where we could feed our own newborn babies. :/ grrrrrr…it doesn’t look like we’ve gotten too far-but it’s better than it used to be. If the Armed Services “get to” have a say about NOT breastfeeding so obviously, then they should also supply the clothing options extended to pregnant Marines/Airmen/Soldiers. My own daughters chose to join the Army & luckily, their commands were VERY willing to support “the neeeeed to feeeeed”!!


  6. Actually, each service HAS a policy on breastfeeding and pumping. Air Force Instruction 44-102 Section 4.16 Breastfeeding and Breast Pumping(http://www.af.mil/shared/media/epubs/AFI44-102.pdf). It is completely for and recommends breastfeeding, but does state duty requirements may not always allow for it. I am a vet, a mother and don’t disagree with those who want to breastfeed, but bashing the military because you have to complete a sworn obligation of commitment to service instead of yourself or your child isn’t a valid argument. You voluntarily make that commitment, and to the best of thier abilities, they try to accomodate in most cases.


    • If you read the blog, you would see that NOT all of the services have a breastfeeding policy. The Army does not have any type of policy regarding breastfeeding and pumping. And just because there is a policy in place does NOT mean it is being followed by the chain of command. This blog and this website are about ALL the services, not just the Air Force. I’ve posted ALL the policies on my website, I know what they state and how they are to be followed. They are NOT being followed in the majority of cases, especially for the junior enlisted.


      • I don’t know who you are or what gives you the knowledge to say they are not being followed, but of the 10 bases, multiple services I’ve been too, they are being followed and then some. Hell, even the “picture” was taken with permission, right or wrong, so someone approved it somewhere. Yes, there are bad apples out there, it can’t be denied, but you are blanketing everyone like they are all evil. They aren’t. You’re bad experience doesn’t mean everyone has one.


  7. This is confusing to me. Why would military women bring their children with them to work outside of a special visit? Why would a child be present so often that a room would need to be built to nurse the children?

    I thought the goal was to encourage more women to breast feed, but it seems to me that the common message is that the women feel entitled to do whatever they want because breast feeding is good for them and the baby. Military women may not get all the support they want or are supposed to get, but suggesting the military does not support military moms won’t help the cause. It also doesn’t help when you say … screw the military standard for dress and personal appearance. We’re moms and feeding our babies is natural, so we should get to ignore what’s important to you.

    The Air Force has a budget and breast feeding isn’t the only important cause out there. Some actually have to do with equipment and training time for duty that isn’t met due to the budget limitations.

    Somewhere along the line I couldn’t help but think that most of the arguments here are absurd. You’re in the military to serve the military, not the other way around. Good for you if you want to be a great mother. That takes hard work, commitment and sacrifice. There are troops who don’t get enough armor. There are troops that get wounded in combat. We don’t even have enough money to take care of them properly and we have a breast feeding group complaining about not getting new uniforms to breast feed and nursing rooms in every building?! Every job needs to have perks, but we need to draw the line somewhere.


    • It’s not a “perk”, it’s medical care for an infant. And the policies are for rooms where mothers can take about the amount of time that folks take for a smoke break so they can pump milk to feed their baby later.

      I get where you’re coming from, but you’re being rather obtuse. Spending billions of dollars on safety gear isn’t quite the same as cleaning up an unused office to put a chair in it and a privacy sign on the door.


  8. thank you for the post! it would be great to have modified undershirts for bf’ing, but i don’t ever see the military getting there in any official capacity. i am working on making one myself since baby #3 is on the way for me and i fully plan on going back to work. i’m in the air force and have been more confident about bf’ing/pumping at work the more kids i have. the first one didn’t work for long because i didn’t know there was an AFI and the only private place people told me about was a single stall restroom. women would constantly pound on the door when i was in there, i could hear their frustrations with it being used for so long (there were other multiple-stall restrooms on the same floor, women were just too lazy to walk to it). i should have just made a sign that said i was using it for pumping and would be done at whatever time. i think pumping lasted six months, but i was really only pumping once a day by the second week back at work. for my son i was aware of the AFI and the fact that i didn’t have to be in a restroom. i was more confident because of how much i hated not being able to keep up with pumping for my daughter. i was determined to make it strong through the six month mark, and i did. i had a much better room to pump in for the first five months. then they needed that room for an office so i was given the key to a room with a chair and a freezer (it is an elevator shaft that is not set up with an elevator yet). no table, no outlet away from the door, no air ventilation. so i sat on the concrete floor for my 20 minutes with my back against the door since the freezer was against the wall and the power outlet was next to the door. since the room didn’t have any circulating air i often opened the freezer door to cool off the area i was in so i didn’t sweat away during that time. this time around i should have my own office, which means i’ll be able to pump and work at the same time (keeping true to the mission requirements and accomplishing my personal goals). if i don’t have my own office, i will not be afraid to ask the tough questions and demand a space meeting the AFI requirements and something that will keep up with mission requirements.

    there is something that was not highlighted in this article but it really bothers me about supervisors and leaders who don’t let women pump at work. they will deny a woman her right by AFI & federal law to go pump, yet they will let groups of people go smoke for 30 minutes at a time, multiple times during the day/shift. those pumping moms have to stay behind and work while the smokers get their breaks (which on a 12-hour shift can easily add up to 3+ hours per smoker). and yet a mom can’t take 15-30 minutes every 3-4 hours to provide nourishment for her child? it’s definitely an interesting double-standard – especially since one thing kills someone (smoking) and another provides life (milk).

    again, thank you!


  9. I say go Military Moms.. How can doing something we are biologically and genetically created to do be disrespectful? Serving our country is about protecting our rights, our home and our families! If we expect military moms to put their lives on the line to protect us, how can we say that those are able to breast feed to provide better nutrients to their children are disrespecting the uniform?


  10. You must be kidding me. How dare you compare bottle feeding in public to breast feeding in public WHILE IN UNIFORM! You know what the difference is? When you bottle feed your baby (which is full of breast milk by the way) in public you are not exposing your breast WHILE IN UNIFORM! Soldiers are not allowed to be topless (whether completely or partially) while on duty in duty uniform. Here, it is easy, if you must breast feed while on duty in duty uniform then go somewhere private. If you are not in private, then bottle feed your baby. I have had several active duty soldiers who pump, I have even excused them from details and duties with ample time to pump or go home to feed their children. If you want to breast feed in public, which is not illegal, then change OUT OF UNIFORM. The military is not the civilian world and the same rules do not apply. Quit trying to civilianize the military or get out and be a civilian if that is the life you want so badly. These published photos of females with their breasts exposed (whether a baby is attached to the nipple or not) while in uniform makes me sick. They should be ashamed. I would never deny a mother (as a mother) her right to breastfeed her child, just not in uniform. I am appalled.


    • It seems some behave like their cause is the only cause and damn any rules that impede them in any way. That’s a pretty sad commentary when it comes to civilians behaving that way, but for people to encourage military members to disobey authority is potentially dangerous.

      We’re not talking about the military prohibiting breast feeding in uniform. We’re not even talking about them disallowing it all together. We’re talking about the military asking them to be discreet when feeding in uniform. If that hurts your feelings, then too bad. If you can’t figure out how to be discreet, then ask for help.

      It’s all the stupid arguments that really complicate the issue and hide the original message. That message is that all moms should breast feed their baby if they’re able, even military moms. That doesn’t mean you can do it any time or anywhere. The military essentially owns military members. It owns the uniform. It owns the bases. If you don’t respect military rules and proclaim to the world how badly they treat you, especially in the same breath you are asking for more perks (time and money), then you’ll only be making it more controversial and tougher for those who need proper support and encouragement.


      • The most amusing arguments:

        It’s perfectly natural and beautiful and that’s what God made breasts for.
        – Can we show off our natural, beautiful body that god made?
        – My facial hair is perfectly natural, etc. Do I really have to shave it?
        – Going to the restroom is a perfectly natural, legal and necessary thing isn’t it?

        How can you compare breast feeding to urinating or defecating? You don’t drink your urine do you?
        – Are you really so ignorant that you don’t understand the use of an analogy? Being natural necessary and healthful ring a bell?

        Why should I have to drive somewhere to find an appropriate place to feed my baby or pump?
        – Ummmm … you don’t. Is it really awful to face a corner or a wall if you can’t find a place you like better?
        – Is the military supposed to build a nursing room in every building on every military installation and other location they use just in case they have a mom who needs to pump? Ever hear of a budget and priorities … you know, like the ones that are actually mission related?

        I’m not going to make my baby go hungry because I need to drive somewhere, change out of uniform into civilian clothes to feed/pump, then change again and drive back.
        – Can anyone say DRAMA? I’m going out on a limb here, but I doubt your baby will starve, so there’s no need to suggest it’s that urgent.
        – If it is urgent and time is an issue, how about turning away from the crowd and being discrete? Yes, I get it’s natural, but do you get that you’re in a uniform?
        – My mom and my wife puts some of you whiners to shame! They GLADLY sacrificed time, money, convenience, etc. to take care of their baby.

        Why should I let someone tell me I can’t feed my baby in uniform when they encourage breast feeding?
        – Are you the modern day Robin Hood? You’re not robbing from the rich to feed the oppressed and poor.
        – Is doing something good justification for breaking another rule, especially when the former could have been done without the latter?
        – Can we rob a bank to feed starving or homeless people?
        – Can we speed through a school zone because it will help us get to work on time?

        Other military members have been seen breaking the rules, so this is not a big deal!
        – Two wrongs don’t make a right? Sound familiar? Your mom probably taught you that one.
        – When someone violates rules for uniform wear by doing something like walking and eating or standing around with their hands in their pockets, I seriously doubt they were going to draw national attention to themselves by making a poster and posting pictures for the world to see. Even if they did, you’d be ignorant to ignore the “shock” value of said posters/pictures.

        If you don’t like it, then don’t look.
        – Don’t look at the poster and Internet pictures that were created specifically for people to look at? Really? If I poke you with a needle, can I tell you not to flinch or bleed?

        The military does not support breast feeding.
        – The DoD does. The USAF does. Your local chain of command or supervisor or work place may not. Why fix the local problem when you can make an international scene?
        – You get paid maternity leave. You get free maternity uniforms. You get paid time on the clock to pump. You get time to recover from pregnancy to meet fitness standards. You get duty restrictions before and after delivery. You don’t even have to worry about keeping your job!
        – Civilians would love to be “not supported” like military women are (or are supposed to be).

        *** Where did all these silly arguments come from? A photo showing two military women outside without hats on, blouse unbuttoned and shirt hiked up on a military installation intending for the whole world to see them breast feeding in uniform. What was the purpose of the photo? To encourage military women to breast feed. The AF said go ahead and breast feed in uniform if you want, but be mindful of the uniform standards and be discrete. Apparently that was too much to ask these strong and independent women to do, which makes me wonder if they’re all that strong and independent in the first place.


  11. As a veteran, what I noticed first in the photo was that the two ladies were clearly outside and not wearing a hat. It seems silly, but all soldiers must wear a hat outside regardless of rank or branch of service. And soldiers do not have any say in the matter- they required by military regulation to wear it. You can even take off the outer jacket due to conditions and just wear the undershirt… but the hat always stays on (unless you are under a structure that provides cover from the elements). As for the breast-feeding issue, it’s almost a non-issue to do it in uniform because soldiers, in fact, aren’t allowed to bring their children to work. In fact, in 5 years in the Army I never saw a baby even though I was in the Intelligence field which had lots of women, women with children, and even a few pregnant soldiers. That sort of activity shouldn’t even be remotely connected to the uniform and how other people are doing it in uniform while on duty is beyond me. I can understand breast-pumping at work or taking a break to see the baby at the home- completely understandable and I have seen it done frequently by nursing soldiers. But in my 5 years of military service, I never heard of a nursing soldier taking a stroll to a public park while in uniform, disassembling the military uniform into a state of disarray, then being photographed nursing their baby in the near-nude. So I agree with a lot of people that the photo was in poor taste; and it doesn’t even represent the women who serve because I was serving right next to them and know that they didn’t do things like that. Every uniform is the property of the United States Government and it is not to be used for promote a cause or advocacy group. The photo was unrealistically wrong on many levels.

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