Texas moms have a right to breastfeed

This commentary first appeared in the Houston Chronicle. 

Houston has a few legislators who know that supporting mothers means more than flowers and brunch on a Sunday in May.

Sen. Sylvia Garcia and Reps. Armando Walle and Jessica Farrar, all of Houston, are pushing legislation to support the health of working moms and their babies by making schools and other public worksites more breastfeeding-friendly. With only a few weeks left in the legislative session, and a few legislators pushing back against the legislation, according to a recent Texas Tribune report, it's more important than ever for lawmakers to recognize the importance of these protections.

Walle's bill, for example, would make life a little easier for a teacher who is up half the night grading papers and taking care of a baby, and then spends all day trying to educate 30 seventh-graders. By providing her with a private space and reasonable time to express breast milk at work, it would also support her and her baby's health by allowing her to continue breastfeeding if she chooses.

Breast milk offers numerous positive outcomes, which is why the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends exclusive breastfeeding for infants until approximately six months of age and continued breastfeeding until at least 12 months. The health benefits for babies who breastfeed include reduced likelihood of conditions like diabetes, obesity, and gastrointestinal and respiratory infections. Breastfeeding can also improve the neurodevelopmental outcomes of children.

Mothers benefit from nursing, too. A decrease in postpartum blood loss was found for mothers who breastfeed, and correlations have also been found between nursing and decreases in breast and ovarian cancer.

Unfortunately, navigating work and breastfeeding can be challenging for many mothers in Texas. Many moms stop breastfeeding because they anticipate they won't receive the support they need at work. Federal law currently requires employers to provide breastfeeding accommodations to hourly employees. Since salaried workers are not protected under this law, working women who need to pump at work must often navigate difficult obstacles to do so.

Walle's bill, HB 786, would address that challenge by requiring all public employers, including state agencies, local government and public schools, to provide a private space and a reasonable amount of break time for mothers who need to express breast milk while at work. It is under consideration in a Senate committee hearing today after passing the House earlier in the legislative session.

Garcia's bill, SB 1479, requires school districts to provide "reasonable break times and facilities for school district educators expressing breast milk." A few senators have spoken out against SB 1479, saying it expands the role of government. Garcia responded that her bill imposes "no extra burden" on schools, as they are already required to provide these accommodations for some employees. With two weeks to go in the legislative session, it hasn't come up for a vote in the full Senate yet.

Farrar's bill, HB 232, came up just short of last week's deadline for a House vote. It would have required all state agencies to develop policies supporting worksite breastfeeding for their employees, to the extent reasonably practicable, and strengthened protections of a mother's right to breastfeed in public.

We often hear that being a mom is one of the hardest jobs in the world. Our elected leaders have the chance to make the job a littler easier for mothers who both work and breastfeed. Let's make sure that they do.

Alice Bufkin is the Early Opportunities policy associate for Texans Care for Children, an Austin-based nonprofit organization.