Medical Residents Need Breastfeeding Support Too

Katie Grogan, DMH, MA; Kate Otto Chebly, MD, MPA


August 09, 2021

Katie Grogan, DMH, MA

As working mothers with babies in tow when the COVID-19 crisis struck, countless uncertainties threatened our already precarious work-life balance. We suddenly had many questions:

"If my daycare closes, what will I do for childcare?"

"How do I navigate diaper changes, feedings, and naps with my hectic remote work schedule?"

"If I'm constantly interrupted during the day, should I skip sleep to catch up on work and not let down my colleagues?"

As professionals who work closely with medical trainees, we knew our parenting dilemmas were being experienced even more acutely by our frontline worker colleagues.

Kate Otto Chebly, MD, MPA

Medical training is an increasingly common time to start a family. In a recent study, 34% of trainees in Harvard-affiliated residency programs became parents during training, and another 52% planned to do so. Trainees have higher breastfeeding initiation rates but lower continuation rates than the general population. Early nursing cessation among trainees is well documented nationally and is most often attributed to work-related barriers. These barriers range from insufficient time and limited access to facilities to a lack of support and discrimination by supervisors and peers.

This trend does not discriminate by specialty. Even among training programs known to be "family friendly," the average duration of nursing is just 4.5 months. Residents of color are disproportionately affected by inadequate support. Studies show that Black parents breastfeed at lower rates than White parents. This has been largely attributed to structural racism and implicit bias, such as Black parents receiving less assistance initiating nursing after delivery. Adequate lactation support and inclusivity are also lacking for transgender parents who choose to breastfeed or chestfeed.

The very nature of residency training, which includes shifts that can span more than 24 hours, conflicts with many health-promoting behaviors like sleeping and eating well. However, its interference with lactation is correlated with gender. Women are disproportionately affected by the negative outcomes of unmet lactation goals. These include work-life imbalance, career dissatisfaction, and negative emotions. In a study of pediatric residents, one in four did not achieve their breastfeeding goals. Respondents reported feeling "sad, devastated, defeated, disappointed, guilty, embarrassed, frustrated, angry, like a failure, and inadequate." Among physician mothers more broadly, discrimination related to pregnancy, parental leave, and nursing is associated with higher self-reported burnout.

Navigating nursing during residency training has more than just emotional and psychological consequences — it also has professional ones. Pursuing personal lactation goals can delay residency program completion and board certification, influence specialty selection, negatively impact research productivity, impede career advancement, and lead to misgivings about career choice.

Trainees and their families are not the only ones harmed by inadequate support in residency programs. Patients and their families are affected, too. Research suggests that physicians' personal breastfeeding practices affect the advice they give to patients. Those who receive lactation support are more likely to help patients meet their own goals. In the previously mentioned study of pediatric residents, more than 90% of the 400 respondents said their own or their partner's nursing experience affected their interaction with lactating patients in their clinic or hospital.

Increased lactation support is a straightforward, low-cost, high-impact intervention. It benefits trainee well-being, satisfaction, workflow, and future patient care. The Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education mandated in July 2019 that all residency programs provide adequate lactation facilities — including refrigeration capabilities and proximity for safe patient care. However, to our knowledge, rates of compliance with this new policy and citation for noncompliance have yet to be seen. Regardless, facilities alone are not enough. Residency programs should develop and enforce formal lactation policies.

Several institutions have successfully piloted such policies in recent years. One in particular from the University of Michigan's surgery residency program inspired the development of a lactation policy within the internal medicine residency at our institution. These policies designate appropriate spaces at each clinical rotation site, clarify that residents are encouraged to take pumping breaks as needed — in coordination with clinical teams so as not to compromise patient care — and communicate support from supervisors.

Our program also established an informal peer mentoring program. Residents with experience pumping at work pair up with newer trainees. The policy benefits residents who wish to chestfeed or breastfeed, normalizes lactation, and empowers trainees by diminishing the need to ask for individual accommodations. It also costs the program nothing.

As more women enter medicine and more trainees become parents during residency, the need for support in this area will only continue to grow. The widespread lack of such resources, and the fact that clean and private facilities are only now being mandated, is symbolic. If even this basic need is rarely acknowledged or met, what other resident needs are being neglected?

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