By Kristen Gerencher

(MCT)

Then "the incident" happened. A male co-worker who was new to the job was looking for the break room. Her office door didn't have a lock and the sticky note she affixed to it asking for privacy had fallen off. To the chagrin of both, he walked in on her mid-pump, she said. All was forgiven, but around that time she decided two months of expressing milk at work would have to suffice.

"There was a little bit of a heartstring pull when it ended," said Mehaffey, whose daughter is now 3. "But for my health and my sanity I was fine with it. It was what needed to be done."

It's a common but discreet ritual for many new mothers who return to work after maternity leave: pumping and storing breast milk for their babies, a relatively inexpensive and healthful way to supply nourishment while separated.

Despite the advantages for both mother and infant's health and the potential for employers to reap fewer absences in the long run, expressing milk on the job remains a sensitive subject for many working women. Pumping can keep new mothers connected to their children and help them maintain their milk supply so they can continue to breastfeed when they're at home, but it often comes at a cost.

Touchy subject

In the best of circumstances, expressing milk at work can bring lactating women a new kind of camaraderie with their colleagues, not to mention management support as they carve out break times, find private accommodations and use sinks to clean equipment. But pumping also can be inconvenient, awkward and downright impossible at worst, depending on the job and the workplace, experts say.

Data on pumping at work is scant, but some women may be more likely to shy away from the time-consuming activity now for fear of appearing less productive and thus more expendable in a tough economy. Others may be more likely to pump to save money on formula.

Mothers working low-wage jobs and jobs with high turnover are especially vulnerable to quitting breastfeeding early, experts agreed.

Still, not everyone sees the economy as a driving factor.

"Some women feel their jobs are too stressful," McCallister said. "Sometimes stress will inhibit milk production so they will make the decision not to continue. Other women value the benefits and will find any possible way, whether working with the employer or changing jobs."

Addressing the mismatch

But that can be a high bar. Among breastfeeding women in 2005, 12 percent were breastfeeding exclusively at six months compared with the government's public-health goal of 17 percent set for 2010. Still, many more mothers — 43 percent—were doing some breastfeeding when their babies were six months old versus the 50 percent goal set for next year. Just over one in five women were still nursing their babies at a year compared with the U.S. goal of 25 percent.

"Infants who are not breastfeeding are particularly vulnerable to infection and hospitalization for severe respiratory illness," the CDC says on its Web site. "Ideally, babies should receive most of their nutrition from breast milk. Eliminate unnecessary formula supplementation so the infant can receive as much maternal antibodies as possible."

"Working mothers should be able to express milk in the workplace without fear of being fired or discriminated against for choosing to do so," Maloney said in an email. "This protection is long overdue, and this bill would ensure it's in place."

On the front lines

"It was a job and a half," she said, noting that she lost sleep because she had to wake up at night to pump. "I would go in with all my equipment and come home with full bags and ice packs. It was not convenient."

"It was a trade-off: The money-saving factor vs. the convenience factor."

Giangrave also had an accidental walk-in when a custodian opened the door. Still, she had trouble giving herself permission to stop pumping when her kids reached six months.

"I made my goal, but I was unexpectedly sad and feeling extremely guilty over stopping," she said. Ultimately she came to terms with it. "My husband and I decided I had done it long enough, and six months of formula we could handle financially."

Among the things Giangrave said she misses about breastfeeding is a feeling of safety. "I miss knowing what I'm feeding my children is pure and natural and chemical-free and I know where it comes from."

Her son and daughter, who weighed four pounds, 11 ounces and five pounds, 11 ounces at birth more than seven months ago, now eat baby food and formula and tip the scales at around 20 pounds each, she said. "I think they're big, fat healthy babies because I gave them breast milk."

Mehaffey said she has no regrets either. "It was worth it. I felt no matter what I was going through it was for the health and betterment of my child."

Reck, 43, said she enjoyed the good-natured teasing that resulted from her supportive work environment.

"The bathroom was renamed the dairy," she said. "It was all light-hearted."