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Serving Those Who Serve Us

Alexis Hooper
Waldorff MD USA
From: LEAVEN, Vol. 40 No. 5, October-November 2004, pp. 110-11.

Working with mothers in the military can be a unique opportunity for La Leche League Leaders. These mothers have to overcome many obstacles to win the right to breastfeed their children. The military is—and will continue to be—a male-dominated society; however, women in the military still want to have a family as much as civilian women. While many military units are progressive and include a place to pump and even provide breast pumps, some have never been faced with the challenge of accommodating a breastfeeding service member. It may seem embarrassing and overwhelming for the new mother and her supervisors.

Before her baby is born, it is important for a military mother to tell her supervisors that she intends to breastfeed. Sharing this information will prevent commanders from being caught off guard, scrambling to fit pumping into the often hectic military workday. The military mothers who understand and are educated about breastfeeding, and "who discuss their concerns with their chains of command, usually have the best success in getting the support that is needed in the workplace," explains Lara Mulvaney, a Leader with an LLL Group in Stuttgart, Germany, which serves the needs of military wives, along with active duty soldiers.

In the United States military, the active duty military mother must return to work six weeks after her baby’s birth. Unless she uses her personal vacation, she cannot change this situation except with a doctor’s order. Furthermore, she may not be deployed overseas within six months of birth. Yet, if she is not aware of this regulation, she could be sent away sooner. She can appeal for her entitlement to stay with her baby for six months or she may be able to work with her supervisors to extend the length of her maternity leave. (Members of the Reserve who are called to active duty have the same rights as those currently on active duty.) When assisting a military mother, remind her of her right to appeal. In the military, a commander of higher status is always available to whom a soldier can make a complaint.

"Israel is a little different," explains Brandel Falk, an LLL Leader in Jerusalem, Israel, "as virtually every adult man is in the army." Both men and women serve full-time at age 18 unless they get a deferment. Women must serve for two years while men serve for three. Men then serve about a month per year until they are released permanently. Women are usually released from military responsibility when they get married or pregnant. There’s also a permanent army in which men and women sign up to serve on an ongoing basis. These women can continue to serve after marriage and pregnancy. They receive a pregnancy leave, but then must return to duty.

"The biggest challenge that many military mothers face with breastfeeding," offers Lara Mulvaney, "is probably the fact that many do not have private offices or lounges that they can use to pump." Many higher ranking officers do have their own private areas, and have more control over their own schedules, she says, which enables them to express milk to feed their babies. "Many have to find creative solutions, such as pumping in a car, having the babysitter bring the baby at lunchtime, pumping under a poncho in the field, and many others! I have heard many funny stories," she says.

Leaders can offer the military mother suggestions for working with commanders to find a suitable time and place for pumping and storing her milk. Most units have a refrigerator full of sodas and snacks where she could store her milk. Service members are given breaks for smoking, eating, and religious practices, so there is no reason why she should not receive the same amount of time to provide milk for her baby. Perhaps she could study military manuals pertaining to her job while pumping; commanders appreciate service members who try to improve their skills. Give her information that shows that breastfed babies are sick less often, which means she’ll be at work more. Also suggest she show the effects that sudden weaning can have on both her body and on the health of her baby. Perhaps she can even find a doctor within the military medical system who will provide a health reason why she must nurse. In light of recent military involvements, many mothers are being sent away from their families with little warning. If they cannot delay their deployment, they will need to find ways to make the weaning process and impending separation as easy as possible.

"My experience working with active duty mothers is to cry with them and help them wean as gradually as possible when they are deployed," shares Carroll Beckham, a Leader with LLL of Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA, which serves many military wives and soldiers stationed at Fort Bragg. She continues:

I remember one mother who came to our Group for over a year and was still breastfeeding her toddler when she was sent to Korea, unaccompanied, for a year. She took it much better than I did and nursed up until the last minute.

Some branches of the US military allow women to leave the service early for pregnancy or family hardship. She may not be willing to take this option, but maybe she is willing to try to change her job or duties to allow more time with her family. Of course, she may not be able to leave her job, but she may be able to work different hours or work in an administrative position that will keep her close to her baby.

The Military Spouse

It’s said that the wife has the hardest job in the military. Never assume that the military spouse has anyone at home for support. She is often thousands of miles from her nearest relative, may not know anyone in her community, and may not have seen her husband since their baby’s conception. A new mother’s lack of support and feelings of isolation can be very stressful, especially when everything seems to be going wrong all at once. Just as a Leader would help a civilian breastfeeding mother, so would she want to listen to the military wife’s challenges and remember she may be the first adult the mother has talked to in a while. It’s also a good idea to become familiar with area support groups, play groups, and other activities that she might enjoy. Most military bases are family-oriented and provide well for families of the deployed.

"I think it really comes down to the same listening skills and emotional support we provide to [all] mothers, but military mothers may need us even more," says Amy Waldrop, a military spouse of a retired Coast Guard who now lives in Fuquay Varina, North Carolina, USA. The closest family she had when her babies were born was five hours away. "Luckily for me," she says, "my mother was an LLL Leader when I was a child and I was able to get her on the phone when I couldn’t reach the local Leader." LLL became a really big part of her life because of the emotional support the Leaders gave her. Since military families have to move every few years, she adds, it is sometimes difficult to make new friends.

As one of the co-Leaders of the Fort Bragg/Pope AFB (Air Force Base) LLL Group, Deidre Owens of Fayetteville, North Carolina, USA, says, "It has been a pleasure to assist breastfeeding military spouses." The Group currently has one military reservist, notes Deidre, who has a husband deployed in Iraq and has to deal with separation from her infant during drill weekends.

"One of the most important contributions we offer at Fort Bragg," continues Deidre, "is being a support person when husbands are deployed. Many times when a military wife calls a Leader or approaches her after a Series Meeting, it is for encouragement and comfort, not necessarily for breastfeeding management questions."

Amy Waldrop says she really didn’t need any breastfeeding help, nor did she have any specific questions or concerns about breastfeeding, "but it was nice to know someone was there to listen if I needed [her]."

The military mother would experience the same feeling of loneliness and isolation as a spouse would, Amy added, but there are other things to consider. A military mother may be facing deployment and leaving her child(ren). While we would all like to think exemptions are always granted, the reality is that service comes first. There is a saying, "Your family is not issued with your sea bag," and as family-friendly as the military would like to be, it is the mother’s commitment above all else to serve. Once she signs the contract, she knows what is expected of her.

Military Health Care

The US military offers only a limited choice of health care providers and lactation consultants. In some cases, women cannot use non-military provided health care without paying out of pocket. Further, she may see a different health care professional every time she needs medical help, creating confusion among the care providers. Unfortunately, mother and baby are not treated together most of the time. Often, they are seen by different doctors, which can also add to the confusion. The baby’s doctor may be willing to treat him for thrush, but the mother’s doctor does not believe it is necessary to treat her as well. When you ask about what the doctor has said, be prepared for long, possibly contradicting, details. Most bases with major hospitals employ one or more lactation consultants. They often provide breastfeeding classes, warm lines for telephone help, and clinical consultation in conjunction with obstetricians/gynecologists or pediatric practices. One lactation consultant may serve the needs of 40 babies born in one day. Obviously she has her hands full, and some women may slip through the cracks. Some mothers may not even know they have access to a lactation consultant.

If you know you will be working with military mothers, get the telephone number of the military lactation consultant so you can provide it if necessary. Many medical units provide home visits by nurses or lactation consultants to make sure everything is going smoothly, and they refer their patients to us all the time. In fact, they may be our best promoters in the military!

"I became an LLL Leader and requested the Fort Bragg Group because of the frequent deployments and the high transient nature of the military community," reveals Deidre Owens. "It is important to offer some form of support to pregnant or new mothers."

The military mother may never contact La Leche League again, but she might move to a new place and share how much a La Leche League Leader helped her, making her a great resource for promoting breastfeeding.

Alexis Hooper has been an LLL Leader for nine months and is currently in the Army Reserves after serving four years on active duty as an Arabic Speaking Interrogator and Persian Gulf Specialist. She has worked for several US and foreign government agencies, surrounded by breastfeeding mothers. She currently lives with her husband, a retired Marine, whom she met while stationed in the Middle East. They have a two-year-old son, Gunner, and are expecting another baby in December 2004.

Editor’s Note: La Leche League International is an educational, nonsectarian, nongovernmental organization with a worldwide and diverse community whose single focus is to help mothers breastfeed. This article is not intended as social or political commentary outside of the focus of LLL.

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