November 27, 2017
Hannah Buckle

The benefits of breastfeeding for mother and child have been well established, yet the rates across the nation are low. Canadian universities must be inclusive and provide lactation support to student mothers on campus so they can achieve the minimum six-month recommendation and beyond for exclusive breastfeeding.

Why should a woman have to choose between the demanding standards of her academics and motherhood? Student mothers face this decision as they plan their return to university postpartum. One of the main reasons why women report breastfeeding cessation is due to pursuing higher education. Mothers find it too difficult to balance both breastfeeding their child and meeting the demands of their university curriculum. In 2014, Statistics Canada reported astonishing low initiation rates for breastfeeding with the province of Newfoundland and Labrador having the lowest. The substantial health benefits of breastfeeding for the mother, child and overall health of society have been well established. Breastfeeding campaigns and awareness have been circulating in recent years, however, university student mothers are still faced with challenging environments when breastfeeding on campus.

Universities must alleviate some of the pressures placed on student mothers. Almost immediately after having their child, they may have to return to studies. They may choose to return, they could feel obligated due to the potential loss of their program seat, or to receive any scholarships or funding they may have. Additionally, health professionals often place pressure on mothers to reach the recommended six-month breastfeeding mark and beyond. Student mothers are faced with the conflicting responsibilities of their academic career and motherhood, this confliction places immense pressure and stress on the mother.

 Formal policies and initiatives differ significantly across the country, depending on the province and the university. However, there are currently no clear and well-advertised policies in place to ensure breastfeeding student mothers are comfortable and successful in their breastfeeding practices on campuses. There is a need for such policies, which have clear details on available supports and ease of access for mothers.

How inclusive are Canadian universities for lactating student mothers as we see it today? With the increasing diversity in society, one of the key values stated by universities is “inclusiveness to all”. Yet, breastfeeding mothers still report challenges on campus and suggest possible inequalities in breastfeeding practices. Studies have shown differences between the breastfeeding experiences of paid employees and student mothers at universities. Interestingly enough, oftentimes staff or faculty of universities do not perceive difficulty in their breastfeeding experience, and often report supports such as social support from coworkers, access private offices for lactation, and milk storage readily available for their breastfeeding practices.

I know first hand the difficulty of breastfeeding on a Canadian campus. There are many barriers, which cause it to be difficult and may prevent mothers from choosing to breastfeed their child. From speaking with other mothers and from my own experience the major requests to creating an inclusive environment include the following: a childcare facility on campus, adequate spaces for breastfeeding and pumping milk, and advocacy in the student body and lactation support programs:

  •  Childcare. Many universities argue they are “baby-friendly”, or support lactation among student mothers on campus but many universities do not have childcare facilities that accept young infants. If a mother is exclusively breastfeeding her child, but the child is not on-site or nearby, then how is she suppose to successfully do so? It is one thing to claim you support a practice, but if you do not provide the proper physical support then the claim means nothing.
  •  Private Space. Breastfeeding in public has become widespread and is largely accepted by the public. However, pumping in public still turns up a few noses when people are faced with it. Mothers may also be more sensitive to pumping in public. For the comfort of the mother, lactation rooms should be conveniently located across campuses. Since childcare is often times not available until the child turns two, mother’s depending on pumping to nourish their child and maintain milk supply during long hours away. In order for women to effectively pump, they must have a sterile private space and access to refrigeration for milk storage. Many universities, such as Memorial, state in their policies that if a mother needs a room one can become available. However, the lack of advertising or the potentially complicated process of setting up a room could be enough to deter some mothers from inquiring.
  • Social Support. University student mothers often report social isolation as a barrier to their breastfeeding success. Regardless of how determined and committed a mother may be on her breastfeeding venture, without sufficient social support she may fall short. There should be structured lactation and breastfeeding support programs available at all universities across Canada that is consistent regardless of the province or university. They should provide a welcoming and supportive atmosphere, connecting mothers on campus.

With more women deciding to have children while establishing their careers, the accessibility of Canadian universities for potential breastfeeding student mothers is important to the future health of Canadians. This should not be an issue that university student mothers are faced with in the twenty-first century. It should be a university’s goal to support women, including mothers, on their journey to higher education. Failure to do so can result in the loss of new mothers in university, reduced productivity and lost human potential. In order for the productivity growth of Canada to be continued, there needs to be support given to the different life cycles of individuals and development of good policy solutions.