The Equity of Breastfeeding: Why it Benefits Us All to Support Lactating Women Physicians

Nov 6, 2020 | Gender, Humanizing Medicine, Thriving | 0 comments

I’ve been speaking with women physicians about the top challenges they face today. I’ve learned there are many—which honestly didn’t surprise me, given that 48 precent of women physicians report burnout symptoms (compared with 37 percent of their male counterparts).

Several have mentioned the challenge of breastfeeding while working—rather ironic considering what is known about the health benefits for mother and infant. Maybe their colleagues and leaders consider the logistics of breastfeeding while working to be an individual woman’s problem to solve. Perhaps leaders think, “Once an organization designates a lactation room, isn’t that enough? How is breastfeeding a system problem?” Maybe colleagues wonder, “Why should they be given time off during the day when the rest of us aren’t?”

First of all, a lactation room alone is not enough. Often, these spaces are located in the far reaches of the hospital or clinic. And even if they are located close enough to access in a reasonable amount of time, women physicians are not given protected time to pump. They squeeze in pumping sessions when they can and end up harried and late for their next patient.

Failing to proactively support lactation undermines our social contract to support the health of our children. Stress is known to reduce milk supply, which then leads to more stress. The last thing women physicians need right now is more stress. Plus, the time a child is breastfed is fleeting, usually lasting months, not years.

Also, I see lactation support as an equity issue. Equality is providing the same opportunities and resources to all physicians, regardless of their specific needs. Equity is ensuring that all physicians have access to the opportunities and resources they need to do their jobs well and be healthy, which will differ from person to person and over time.

Physicians who are breastfeeding should have the support and resources they need, including protected time to pump, so that they can fully participate in their work, just as a physician with a broken leg might be given extra time to walk between sites or proactively provided with a leg scooter to make the experience doable.

We must also address the implicit bias against women in medicine that persists—a bias that says, “Women physicians, especially if they have children, cannot keep up/aren’t as loyal/don’t want to work hard.” Women physicians are hard, loyal, incredibly valuable employees who provide high-quality patient care.

Finally, providing protected time to pump supports the retention of women physicians. Rather than cutting back on their work hours or leaving practice entirely, they can continue to practice medicine and provide their children with a healthy start. Enabling physicians to remain engaged and on-the-job is smart for any health care organization.

Physician moms can have long careers—during which their time and energy demands will change. Smart organizations will acknowledge this truth and take proactive steps to retain their most valuable asset: their people.

Given the cost of replacing a physician, retaining them over the long haul is a good move fiscally. Instituting policies to proactively support physicians who are breastfeeding is an important part of increasing physician retention. It’s also the equitable and just thing to do.

Image credit: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation


Diane W. Shannon


Diane Shannon is an award-winning writer, author, and coach. Since leaving practice as a primary care physician due to burnout, she has worked to support physicians in achieving their personal and professional goals and to highlight the changes needed to reduce burnout, improve career satisfaction, and protect the bidirectional healing power of the patient-physician relationship.

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