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New Army breastfeeding memo bans bathroom as lactation area

The Army's updated breastfeeding and lactation policy forbids the use of restrooms as lactation spaces, offers suggestions on the duration of breaks for nursing mothers and requires commanders to provide such breaks at least until the child's first birthday — addressing many issues raised by critics of the initial directive.

The first Army-wide guidance on the matter, a September memo from then-Army Secretary John McHugh, included a little more than a page of information, far shorter than installation policies either in place or in process at Fort Bliss, Texas, and other locations. It also offered fewer specifics than the rules used by other services; the Army was the last branch to implement servicewide regulations on the topic.

Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., who had pressed the Army to create such guidance, called it "a positive first step" at the time. Wednesday, her office put out a statement announcing the new policy, saying the revisions came after the initial effort "received sharp criticism from Army women and mothers."

The changes, published in a Nov. 10 memo from acting Army Secretary Eric Fanning that rescinded the September guidance, went into effect immediately, Army spokesman Paul Prince said.

Changes include:

  • The non-restroom lactation area must include a flat space where the soldier can rest her breast pump, as well as "access to a safe water source within reasonable distance from the lactation space," according to the memo. Initial guidance required only that the room have a lock and an electrical outlet, requirements that remain in place.
  • "Commanders will insure that Soldiers have adequate time to express milk," per the new guidance. The old guidance stated that commanders and soldiers "will balance lactation support and readiness"; that wording worried military breastfeeding advocate and former sailor Robyn Roche-Paull, who expressed concern that leaders could use the phrase as justification for denying breaks for most any reason related to operational tempo.
  • No prescribed break time is provided, but the guidance offers an example of a new mother expressing milk for 15 to 30 minutes every two to three hours. Breaks must be offered to new mothers until their child’s first birthday. The September guidance offered no specifics on the length of the breaks or how long they must be made available.
  • Commanders must inform pregnant soldiers of the breastfeeding policy "during initial pregnancy counseling."
  • Soldiers are pointed toward military treatment facilities and Tricare for lactation support, counseling and other resources. The initial guidance did not mention any support systems.
  • Soldiers participating in field exercises where storage of breast milk is not possible will be given time to express milk "with the intent to maintain physiological capability for lactation." Commanders and nursing mothers will discuss the effect of such exercises on lactation, and leaders must coordinate with medical officers regarding milk-storage options under such circumstances.

The updated guidance "discusses the reasons why the policy is important, and more importantly, why supporting breastfeeding is good for mom, baby and the Army," Roche-Paull said in an email. "And it does a much better job of supporting breastfeeding Army moms both in garrison and on deployment/training."

Soldier-moms offered positive feedback to the new policy, she said, though some expressed concerns about the field exercise guidance, hoping more emphasis would be put on milk-storage options. The one-year benefit requirement could also be viewed as a cutoff point by some leaders, Roche-Paull said, instead of a minimum.

While she offered mostly praise for the policy as a whole, Roche-Paull did point to a lack of awareness, saying she'd sent the guidance to many Army moms who weren't aware of the updates and that "it seems it is not being disseminated to the commands at all."

The initial directive was designed as a "less prescriptive approach" that would "afford commanders the appropriate flexibility to accommodate varying situations of individual requests," Prince said at the time.

The new rules apply to active-duty, National Guard and Reserve soldiers, just as the previous policy did.

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