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Honoring Breastfeeding Moms Who Serve

“We can breastfeed and meet the mission – I have the privilege of being among hundreds of mothers who are doing just that.” –LT Gaby Cavins, Training Officer, US Navy

November is recognized as Military Family Month and is a perfect time to recognize the thousands of women serving in our country’s armed forces. An unprecedented rise in the number of women serving in the military over the past 15 years is driving changes in the services, programs and culture offered to active duty and Veteran women. Yet there is still room for improvement.

How Many Women Are in the Military?

Currently, 16.5% of active duty, 20% of reserve military personnel, and about 10% of the current Veterans population are women of childbearing ages, 18-44 years. This presents a fascinating new issue for the military to handle; calling for an urgent increase clinical services specific for women, including reproductive health services, of which breastfeeding is included. By the way, here’s a breakdown of Women Serving by specific branches of the military:

Air Force: 20%

Navy: 19%

Army: 15%

Marines: 9%

Military Breastfeeding Policies:

How does the military support women who are breastfeeding? There have been some big wins for women in recent years! US Federal law states “a woman may breastfeed her child at any location in a federal building or on federal property, if the woman and her child are otherwise authorized to be present at the location.” The recent expansion of paid maternity leave to 12 weeks gives more time for mothers to establish breastfeeding and milk supply. Additionally, each branch now has their own written breastfeeding policy in place directing commanders to support breastfeeding and requires the provision of dedicated lactation space and breaks for expressing milk. Maternity and breastfeeding uniforms have also been approved for each branch. Other breastfeeding laws can be found at the United States Breastfeeding Committee. (But wait! There’s more! Links to other resources are listed below.)

Is Breastfeeding Support Covered by TRICARE?

Previously exempt from the Affordable Care Act, the Department of Defense’s health care program, TRICARE, recently incorporated limited lactation support services and supplies such as electric pumps into its covered benefits. In-person breastfeeding support must be provided by either an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant or a Certified Lactation Counselor who is also a contracted MD/DO/PA/NP/CNM/RN. There is currently no specific IBCLC directory within the system and inquiries to find a breastfeeding specialist must be generated by the provider or beneficiary.

Military Lifestyle

Military life presents some unique situations requiring special and creative considerations to support breastfeeding. Parents’ needs must be balanced with the nature of military job duties and some specific situations may supersede mothers’ ability to pump at work or continue with breastfeeding. Spousal deployment may leave breastfeeding women as a single parent for long time periods. Since lifting restrictions for women in combat jobs in 2015, events such as training exercises and deployments also present new challenges for active duty mothers to achieve their breastfeeding goals.

Although breastfeeding initiation rates are similar to those of civilians, military women may discontinue breastfeeding sooner. Some servicewomen perceive that military work interferes with breastfeeding and some have experienced real barriers to breastfeeding including lack of proper facilities for pumping, pressures and obligations related to rank, conflicts between mother/soldier demands, physical fitness/weight standards, exposure to hazardous materials and prolonged separations from their infants.

Resources and Tips

Despite current barriers, breastfeeding is supported in the military more now than ever. With some determination and preparedness, women can still reach their breastfeeding goals. Here are some resources and recommendations to help servicewomen succeed with breastfeeding:

  • Understand the breastfeeding policy for your branch.

  • Familiarize yourself with covered lactation benefits for consultation and supplies prior to your due date (contact your TRICARE obstetric or pediatric provider and have them request an “Intensive Search” to find a contracted lactation consultant-this can take 3 days or longer). Military families may also qualify for WIC breastfeeding support services.

  • Visit Mom2MomGlobal® and the book Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the MIlitary® by Veteran Robyn Roche-Paull for support by other breastfeeding military moms and groups around the world, information on military breastfeeding policies, free printable FAQ pages, blog and Facebook support groups, traveling with breastmilk and other practical considerations for military breastfeeding mothers.

  • Mamava, the company that builds private lactation pods, also wrote an inspiring piece about the need for normalizing breastfeeding in the military.

  • Contact a Lactation Consultant in your community who is familiar with how military issues impact breastfeeding for one-to-one support.

A special thank you goes to my son who is currently serving in the Marines. He started noticing how young families in the military struggle to meet their basic needs and as he shared some of his friends’ stories with me, I was inspired to investigate how military mothers fare while breastfeeding. As a result of this research, I have incorporated a new policy into Morning Star Moms to offer a discount for my services to military families. Please ask me about them when you schedule an appointment with me. Thank you all for your service!

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