Pumping Moms Face Risks & We Need to Take Action Now

Breast Pump BathroomThe name of a recent study published in a scientific journal says it all: The Quiet Revolution: Breastfeeding transformed with the use of breast pumps. There’s no question that more babies get breast milk thanks to the more prevalent use of breast pumps, and that’s a good thing for the most part.

But Kathleen Rasmussen, co-author of the study and a professor of nutritional science at Cornell University, wants to add that with the advantages comes the risk of issues from pumping, and she wants scientists to have a chance to investigate those issues.


There’s no doubt that better breast pumps are a good thing. Thanks to them, preemies like my Penelope can get their mom’s milk, including colostrum, even if they can’t digest them until weeks after birth. And moms who go back to work don’t have to give up on breastfeeding. And babies who have trouble latching can get that good stuff via other delivery systems. And moms can donate milk to other moms who are having trouble with supply but don’t want to resort to formula.

It seems kind of insane that something almost every mom does at one point or another – sometimes in the hospital, sometimes at  home, and sometimes in workplace bathrooms – hasn’t had some kind of scientific attention.

Even though federal guidelines specify that employers provide a room other than a bathroom to pumping moms, “those guidelines only apply to companies with 50 or more employees,” says Rasmussen. “Many women are not pumping in the most ideal circumstances. They’re doing it in their cars, or supply closets.”

Some of the questions we don’t have answers to:

  • What is the risk of bacterial contamination of pumped milk?
  • What containers are safer for the storage of that milk?
  • How do most women store and transport their milk?
  • Do babies eat differently when fed at the bottle v. the breast?

In addition, there has been some research of stored milk, and it finds that microwaving milk drastically reduces its anti-infective qualities, and that breast milk’s composition changes over time. What are the effects of these changes on the baby’s nutrition?

And there’s the emotional component. What happens to the bonding experience when you get a jolt of oxytocin with only an ugly black backpack to look at? What bonding and learning experiences do moms and babies miss out on when the baby only gets expressed milk?

Each question is more mind-boggling than the next. Rasmussen isn’t saying it’s bad to feed babies expressed milk; she’s just saying that it could be different, and we need to know how so we can best support breastfeeding moms and protect their babies. She even wonders if the presence of pumps will, counter-intuitively, lead to less support for breastfeeding, as moms will be expected to hook up and pump rather than staying home with their babies during longer maternity leaves.

It is insane to me that we, as a society, claim to care about family values, yet this is yet another way to support families, specifically working moms, that hasn't been studied, and isn't being looked at. That these questions don't have answers -- that's what really drives me up a wall.

All these unanswered questions are building up in Rasmussen and her colleagues like … well… like engorged breasts! It’s like a massive let-down of questions with no answers to … hey, it’s not a perfect analogy. The point is, while better pumps are great, we don’t know what additional challenges they might bring. Here’s hoping Rasmussen can continue her work and tell us the best way to use pumps – and when to pack them away and use the direct-deposit method.

Do you think we'd be better off if we knew how many women pump, how much, and where that milk goes?

Image courtesy of Sheela R. Geraghty, MD, MS, IBCLC, Medical Director, Center for Breastfeeding Medicine

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