ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. -- When Sgt. Natalie Melnichenko, noncommissioned officer in charge of Deployment Medical Readiness Clinic at Fort Eustis, Virginia, returned to duty from maternity leave in March 2021 she did not expect to encounter the challenges that came with pumping breast milk while on duty.
“I am a medic and I know the Army supports breastfeeding and lactation by policy, and I had my unit’s full support,” says Melnichenko. “So I thought was fully prepared. Little did I know the difficulties I was to encounter.”
Melnichenko explained that though her unit provided a dedicated lactation room at her work location, she found it difficult to pump at work as she often didn’t have the time to take breaks from her mission work. She also noted she had problems finding an available refrigerator that she felt comfortable storing her breast milk.
Mitigating the challenges of breastfeeding/lactation that the active-duty Soldier encounters requires shared responsibility from all stakeholders across the organization, including the Soldier’s supervisors and command team.
The Center for Disease Control and Prevention states that breastfeeding can help lower the mother’s risk of heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, ovarian cancer and breast cancer. The CDC also explains that there are numerous health benefits to infants who are breastfed.
The Army recognizes these breastfeeding benefits and published its revised Breastfeeding and Lactation Support Policy in July 2020. Army policy states “breastfeeding has significant health, nutritional, immunologic, developmental, emotional, social, and economic benefits for both mother and child” and prescribes dedicated lactation rooms that encourages better breastfeeding/lactation to better support the Soldier’s return to work.
For August National Breastfeeding Month, the Army Public Health Center is encouraging all leaders and Soldiers to increase awareness of the benefits of supporting breastfeeding in the military workplace. New research and updated policies continue to enhance mission readiness by ensuring optimal lactation support for Soldiers so they can continue to contribute to their unit’s mission with minimal challenges and difficulties. Unfortunately, obstacles still exist.
In light of new research, the Army now hopes to promote exclusive breastfeeding for children up to 6 months of age, and combined breastfeeding with appropriate complimentary foods up to 2 years of age. Both of which are recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the World Health Organization.
Lt. Col. Kelly Bell, a certified emergency nurse with the 7203rd Medical Support Unit out of Hobart, Indiana, who has worked on several Department of Defense policies for pregnant and postpartum service members, says that lactation (breastfeeding and pumping) is a medical readiness issue that requires leadership support. Bell encourages leaders at all levels understand both the current research and policy.
“Support mechanisms are necessary to ensure that a lactating mother who wants to continue breastfeeding will successfully do so,” says Bell. “Proper accommodations and support from the Soldiers’ unit can have a positive impact on the Soldier’s medical readiness just as lack of support can also have a negative impact.”
Leaders should accommodate their lactation schedules to ensure they have the proper time and space to either direct feed or pump. Leaders should also ensure Soldiers feel supported throughout their lactation journey to decrease stress and anxiety.
Maj. Chianti Ivory, a family nurse practitioner with U.S. Army Medical Command, agrees, and says that women who have strong social support are more likely to initiate and continue breastfeeding.
“Without support it can be tough for new mothers in the military to keep breastfeeding,” says Ivory.
As mother of two boys, Ivory had to breastfeed and pump while working full time and says that preparing in advance made the experience less challenging.
“During my pregnancy, I openly communicated with my unit leaders about my needs and developed a plan on how to address unique situations, such as pumping during field training exercises,” says Ivory.
Ivory explained how with successful stakeholder support she was able to set up child care near her job so she could breastfeed her son during lunch time and pump other times.
Melnichenko also reminds Soldiers who are breastfeeding or thinking about breastfeeding to take advantage of the many resources provided by the Army free-of-charge.
Various maternal and parental services are provided across the Army installations including pregnancy classes, lactation consultation, and new parent support programs. These can be found by contacting a local primary care manager or Army Community Services.
In addition, lactation equipment, like a breast pump and accessories, can be obtained through TRICARE with a referral by the soldier’s medical primary care provider.
More information on Army Breastfeeding and lactation policies and programs is available along with other related information on the APHC’s Women’s Health Portal website.
Also see CDC resources for addition details on specific lactation topics-
- What to expect while breastfeeding
- How much and how often to breastfeed
- Pumping breast milk
- Travel recommendations for nursing families
The Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.