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Alena Clark and Yvette Lucero-Nguyen worried that their University of Northern Colorado campus wasn’t breastfeeding-friendly for employees or students.
So they worked with faculty, staff, and students to increase awareness of the health benefits of breastfeeding.
They coordinated with different departments on campus to establish three Lactation Stations to provide breastfeeding parents a private, comfortable place to express breast milk or breastfeed.
They also drafted an institution-wide written policy for breastfeeding support to protect employees and students.
University Employees and Students Without Breastfeeding Privacy
In spring 2011, Alena Clark, Nutrition and Dietetics Associate Professor at the University of Northern Colorado (UNC), where about 18% of undergraduates are Latino, walked into a campus restroom and was concerned to see a mother breast-pumping over the sink.
Clark felt lucky to be able to use her own private office to express breast milk after giving birth four years before.
But she knew that most faculty and staff on campus didn’t have that luxury, nor did students.
Clark, who has been a lactation counselor for over 15 years and is a member of the Colorado Breastfeeding Coalition, worried that neither university employees nor students had private, sanitary places to express breast milk or breastfeed at school, despite federal and state laws requiring such of all employers.
“Not just because it’s the law, but when I saw that mother pumping over the sink, I knew in my heart that [UNC] needed to do something different,” she said.
Clark knows the many benefits of breastfeeding.
She says that, for infants and children, it reduces the risk of infectious diseases, asthma, atopic dermatitis, childhood leukemia, diabetes, obesity, and sudden infant death syndrome. For mothers, it reduces risks of diabetes and estrogen-related cancers, as well as other health benefits, according to state stats.
However, Clark knows that without access to a private, comfortable, sanitary place to express breast milk or breastfeed at work or school, nursing parents struggle to reach their personal breastfeeding goals.
Since 2008, Colorado law (and since 2010, federal law) has required employers to provide employees with time and adequate accommodations to express breast milk or breastfeed.
Yvette Lucero-Nguyen, director of the Women’s Resource Center, and Clark noticed that legislation strongly supported employees’ experiences, but did not support students’ experiences. Lucero-Nguyen and WRC staff also noticed that legislation was not inclusive in supporting the gender identities a breastfeeding individual may hold.
UNC, like many employers nationwide, was not yet formally implementing this legislation.
Clark wondered what she could do to help bring her employer into compliance with the state law in order to support nursing faculty, staff, and students on campus and Lucero-Nguyen wondered what she could do to ensure an inclusive approach was taken when bringing her employer into compliance with the state law.
Assessing Space to Nurse on Campus
Clark began gathering data.
She and her students developed an environmental scan of the UNC campus to assess potential places to express breast milk or breastfeed. Criteria included: privacy, electricity, a chair, and proximity to a sink.
Her students then conducted the scan as part of a service learning project and came up with a list of potential locations to accommodate nursing parents.
One location was in the UNC Women’s Resource Center.
In fall 2011, Clark reached out to Yvette Lucero-Nguyen, director of the Women’s Resource Center
(WRC), and explained her idea to provide private, comfortable places for faculty, staff, and students to express breast milk or breastfeed.
“If you don’t ask, the answer will always be ‘no,’” Clark said.
Lucero-Nguyen thought it was a great opportunity for the WRC to support a women’s and gender issue that directly impacted the UNC community.
As the WRC approaches its work through an intersectional lens, Lucero-Nguyen and WRC staff felt that they needed to think critically about the identities a breastfeeding individual may hold and how that may impact or limit their access to the lactation stations as well as to the support offered through the policy.
Unfortunately, there were only four private offices in the entire building, meaning the WRC didn’t have a private room to provide.
“Space is a really big commodity on our campus, as on every college campus” Lucero-Nguyen said. “Being creative with space is always a challenge..”
Clark and Lucero-Nguyen considered creative ways to provide privacy for breastfeeding parents in multi-use spaces and came up with idea to use big privacy screens to establish a private comfortable place for nursing individuals.
Through word of mouth, a local nurse, a retiring colleague, and a group of students separately contributed to the pair’s efforts by donating a privacy screen, comfortable chair, table, and a multi-user breast pump.
In August 2012, the items were set up in a corner of a multi-purpose room in the WRC to become the first Lactation Station.
Although it wasn’t a private room, faculty, staff, and students said they felt comfortable using the Lactation Station.
Asking for Space for Lactation Stations
Clark and Lucero-Nguyen considered how to reach out to other departments and request space for Lactation Stations. The campus has 10 academic buildings and over 15 administrative and services buildings, which are managed by different departments and different building managers.
Asking departments and buildings to give up space turned out to be a big challenge.
“People, in general, can be very protective of their space, as it’s typically limited” Lucero-Nguyen said. “So, to just come in and say, ‘we want a room in your department,’ isn’t typically a way that people will respond well.”
With the help of the marketing department and students, Clark and Lucero-Nguyen spread the word about the importance of breastfeeding support and Lactation Stations.
They developed and distributed brochures, flyers, and posters through email, social media, and tabling at campus events. They provided employees with a document to help them begin the conversation with their supervisor about breastfeeding support. The document outlines the legal responsibilities the institution has to support individuals, while considering language to ensure all parties are comfortable.
“We try to make it less intimidating because we don’t know where people’s comfort level is in discussing breastfeeding,” Lucero-Nguyen said. “We try to approach every conversation with the information necessary to support understanding.”
Clark and Lucero-Nguyen didn’t start the conversation by citing state law (although it was a part of their strategy).
Instead, Clark would start by discussing the importance of breastfeeding support from a nutrition and health point of view; Lucero-Nguyen would discuss the importance of breastfeeding support from a women’s rights and equity point of view.
Additionally, the pair used their personal connections to get buy-in and bridge the academic side (Clark) with the student affairs side (Lucero-Nguyen).
“We were able to do the work that we naturally do with the relationships that we already have in place to really navigate how to get support,” Lucero-Nguyen said.
Because the pair had raised so much awareness for lactation support and more faculty and staff were requesting space to breastfeed, other departments and building managers began contacting them for help finding space to establish a Lactation Station.
The pair would meet with department or building leaders to identify creative ways use spaces for multiple functions to free up space for a Lactation Station.
For example, Jay Dinges, director of the University Center, helped identify a powder room—a room with mirrors and chairs leading to the ladies restroom—in his building that could be converted into a Lactation Station for two peopl
e. Dinges even purchased two new chairs for the room. This semi-private Lactation Station in University Center opened July 2013.
In some situations, buildings just didn’t have the space, no matter how creative they were.
Clark applied for and received a small campus grant for innovations and purchased more privacy screens for future Lactation Stations and to rent to breastfeeding mothers to temporarily transform their cubicle into a semi-private place to express breast milk or breastfeed.
Inclusive Breastfeeding Policy
With all this momentum, Clark suggested the idea of institution-wide policy for lactation support for all employees and students in a conversation with UNC Human Resources officials in 2014.
The idea stuck and Clark and Lucero-Nguyen began to draft a policy that would ensure lactation support not only for employees, but also for students.
“On the employer side, HR [human relations] is the gatekeeper,” Clark said. “On the student side, that’s where Yvette and the Dean of Students came in to make sure we are protecting the rights of students.”
Dr. Katrina Rodriguez, the Dean of Students, happened to be Lucero-Nguyen’s supervisor (as well as the Assistant Vice President for Student Engagement) and she was more than willing to support their policy and provide that speaks directly to student support.
The team—Clark, Lucero-Nguyen, Rodriguez, and other staff and counsel—drafted a policy to: (1) ensure employees were protected under current Colorado state law; (2) extend Title IX terminology to cover students not protected under federal law or state law; and (3)
to use an inclusive approach to providing services and support.
These were important components of the policy because, for example, Title IX addresses issues related to pregnant students, but it doesn’t support the needs of students to breastfeed.
Because Clark and Lucero-Nguyen’s draft policy included both students and employees, Rodriguez wasn’t sure where the policy would “live,” what process it would need to go through to be approved, or who the decision-makers would be.
Luckily, at the time, Rodriguez was serving on the Steering Committee for the Oversight of Higher Learning Commission and Legislative Academic Compliance, a campus-wide accreditation review process to look at institutional policies and practices.
Rodriguez learned that the governing structure of UNC does not require a vote or lengthy approval process on policies like this, but requires approval from the Executive Director of Human Relations.
In the summer of 2015, Rodriguez approached the Executive Director of Human Relations, Marshall Parks, with the proposed policy for breastfeeding support and asked that it be approved as institution-wide policy.
Parks said yes.
In the meantime, the team continued to build more breastfeeding support on campus and beyond.
On campus, a third Lactation Station, a fully private room in the Student Rights & Responsibilities Office located in Decker Hall, launched in October 2015, and a fourth Lactation Station was proposed and approved in the building design plans for the new Campus Commons building. Construction is expected to begin in late 2016 and Clark, Lucero-Nguyen, and Rodriguez-along with other members of the campus community-are involved in planning meetings to advocate for additional space to accommodates parenting students and employees.
Off campus, Clark supported breastfeeding efforts led by Mike Schwan, a health communications specialist at the Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment, and others to launch the Northern Colorado Breastfeeding Coalition and to establish the Breastfeeding-Friendly Worksite Award to recognize employers that provide a private area and supportive environment for breastfeeding at work.
On November 25, 2015, UNC added the written policy to their website on the Human Resources page under Employee Resources, General Benefits Overview.
The policy is applicable to all UNC faculty, staff, and students and states: “All University supervisors are responsible for being aware of the policy and working with parenting employees to arrange mutually convenient lactation break times. The Office of Student Engagement will be responsible for distributing this policy to the University community and responding to any questions concerning the policy by students.”
“It was an exciting day to learn that UNC will now have an institutional breastfeeding policy, that when combined with the state legislation, supports our entire UNC breastfeeding community,” Lucero-Nguyen said.
Breastfeeding Support Across Campus
Clark and Lucero-Nguyen continue to help other departments understand the importance of supporting breastfeeding and continue developing creative ways to use limited space.
They are currently having conversations with library officials about potential space for Lactation Stations. The library is open later and open 7 days a week, which would provide a lot more access for faculty, staff, and students.
Although state legislation only requires employers to provide space for breastfeeding for employees, Clark and Lucero-Nguyen deliberately used an inclusive approach when developing the written policy and while establishing Lactation Stations to ensure that anyone who chooses to express breast milk or breastfeed will be protected under the policy and have access to lactation spaces.
In drafting and advocating for change to UNC’s written policy, Clark, Lucero-Nguyen, and Rodriguez ensured the responsibility for lactation support for the entire campus community would be on the university. By educating faculty and staff across various departments, developing relationships with various building managers, and providing resources and help identifying space, they ensured support for implementation and enforcement of the policy.
Since late 2014, Clark and Lucero-Nguyen have been tracking and compiling these accomplishments and lessons learned into a toolkit to help other institutions establish Lactation Stations and get lactation support written into campus-wide policy.
Like most toolkits, it will include supporting data, resource guides, and other information. It provides research regarding the benefits of breastfeeding; evidence-based policies and practices to support breastfeeding; federal and state legislation; how to take an inclusive approach to breastfeeding support; information about privacy screen rentals; how to look at multi-purpose use spaces; a guide to developing cross-campus partnerships and collaborations; and a sample policy.
“Through our policy we were able to uphold the employer side, because, truly, that is who the legislation protects-those that are employed by our institution,” Lucero-Nguyen said. “In our policy we were also able to incorporate a piece that supports our students because students are a significant part of our campus community.”
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This success story was produced by Salud America! with support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
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