Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: Strategies for Success

by Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC

newborn at the breastWhen I work with mothers serving in the military or as police officers, firefighters or any of the other myriad non-traditional jobs, I hear time after time about the many challenges and obstacles that they face from the moment the pregnancy test comes back positive to when they finally "hang up the horns" from pumping. Some of these challenges any employed mother might face, but others are definitely unique to the military culture or other non-traditional workplaces.

Special Challenges

These common obstacles can trip up even the most diehard and gung-ho of military mothers (and others) including:

Time to pump: From working the flight schedule, being on-call as a firefighter, or as an air traffic controller with a console that must be monitored nonstop, many mothers face the hardships of not having time to pump or not being able to pump on a steady schedule.

Place to pump: Mothers in non-traditional workplaces often find themselves in unique situations ranging from pumping in the back of an aircraft or squad car, to shipping milk home from the sands of Afghanistan. Creativity becomes paramount in finding suitable places to pump with a modicum of privacy!

Hazardous materials exposure: Some mothers face the added dangers and stress of working around or with hazardous materials such as JP-8, oils, solvents, paints and more to fulfill their job duties.

Deployments: Deployments or any long-distance travel lasting from a few days to 12 months or more are the name of the game while serving in the military and some other occupations, and can mean the difference between premature weaning or not.

Supervisor/co-worker/rank issues: Unsupportive supervisors, co-workers who harass and feel that the breastfeeding mother is getting something special when requesting time to pump, and rank issues between junior and senior personnel can combine to make breastfeeding and/or pumping difficult.

Gear and uniforms: Not only is breastfeeding or pumping nearly impossible in certain gear or uniforms, there also aren't any regulations governing whether a mom is even allowed to breastfeed or pump while in uniform.

Overcoming Obstacles

breastfeeding mom pumping in fighter jetWith these seemingly insurmountable challenges, how do mothers go on to be successful at breastfeeding? More importantly, how can you overcome these and other obstacles so that you can breastfeed your baby for as long you desire? The key lies in attitude, information and support.

Your attitude is probably the biggest determinant of your success at breastfeeding in the military or other non-traditional workplace. All of the mothers I've spoken with have had the attitude that breastfeeding was just going to work, period. They also have a gung-ho, can-do spirit and a good dose of perseverance to boot. There was no trying, or thoughts that it might not work out. These moms went into it believing in themselves, their babies and their breasts.

As one mother wrote, "My biggest advice to anyone wondering if they'll succeed at breastfeeding in the military is: DO NOT TRY. Just DO. You WILL breastfeed. Do not allow yourself an alternative. That is not to say it'll be easy or that you will never give your baby any formula.  ou can always adjust your goal. However, make it a goal you WILL keep. I WILL breastfeed for three months or six months or a year..."

As with most things related to breastfeeding, having proper information allows you to make good choices and plan ahead. While knowing the basics of breastfeeding and pumping is vital to your success, it's more important to know the regulations and policies of your service or workplace regarding breastfeeding and pumping.

Have a plan written up before you speak with your supervisor or HR personnel, including when, where and how often you’ll need to pump. Know whom you need to talk to:

  • Who are the "gatekeepers" at your workplace?
  • Do you need to speak with the Training Officer or Logistics Officer
  • What about your Occupational Health representative if you'll be working around HAZMAT?


Speak with your immediate supervisor or other gatekeepers BEFORE the birth of your baby. Being an informed mother regarding your rights can go along way towards making breastfeeding a success for you.

Last, but certainly not least, line up your support even before the baby arrives. Call on your local IBCLC or La Leche League Leader for information on the basics of breastfeeding and any problems that might crop up. Attend breastfeeding classes, speak with co-workers and friends that have successfully breastfed, and think about starting or joining a breastfeeding support group at your workplace. Above all don't be afraid to ask for help. We all need a helping hand and some encouragement to keep going when the going gets tough.

A few other tips to remember when breastfeeding in the military or other non-traditional job field include:

  • Milk supply: Your milk supply depends on how often milk is removed from your breasts, whether it is by a pump or your baby.  You should aim for at least eight pumping sessions or breastfeeding sessions (or any combination thereof) in a 24-hour period. Remember the saying "You must REMOVE milk to MAKE milk." Whether that means you can only pump twice while at work and your baby reverse-cycle feeds and you manage six to seven nursing sessions during your off-hours; or you can pump four times during the day and breastfeed four more time while at home, you need to aim for eight in 24, if at all possible.
  • Breast pump: Your pump is vitally important to the success of your breastfeeding career. If you don't have a high quality, reliable pump your milk supply may falter or pumping may be painful for you. Do yourself a favor and spend the money on a new double-electric pump from a reputable manufacturer.
  • Hand expression: Please learn hand expression. You never know when the power might go out, you're sent on an unexpected overnight shift, a pump piece breaks or what-have-you. It happens, and knowing how to hand express will keep your milk supply intact and your milk flowing until you can get back home or the power returns. Mothers have also found that hand expression combined with using a pump yields more milk.
  • Breast versus bottle: When at work give bottles, when at home give the breast. Breastfeeding is about more that just the milk, by using bottles only while at work, you put the breast back in breastfeeding and help to cement that wonderful bond between you and your baby. It also helps to keep your milk supply up as your baby is the best pump available, and the skin contact and snuggling with your baby boosts your milk-making hormones.
  • Nighttime nursing While the AAP may be frown, consider co-sleeping and reverse-cycle feeding to boost your milk supply. Mothers whose babies breastfeed during the nighttime hours have increased milk supplies due to higher levels of prolactin (the milk making hormone) during the night hours. By allowing your baby to sleep near or with you, you can more easily breastfeeding during those precious night hours. Babies may take matters into their own hands by reverse-cycle feeding, that is breastfeeding heavily during the night hours and sleeping a lot during the day, which also means you don't need to provide as much breastmilk for the daycare the next day!

Remember that it's not all or nothing. Whatever amount of breastmilk, for whatever amount of time that you can provide to your baby is wonderful. While we would all love to give 100% of our breastmilk, 100% of the time, sometimes and in some situations it just isn't possible. Do the best you can for your baby; no one else has to walk in your boots!

Give yourself a big OORAH for breastfeeding, no matter if it's six weeks, six months or two years! Breastfeeding in the military is not an easy task, and any amount you can give your baby is to be celebrated. Remember, you are giving the breast for baby and country!

Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC, is the Author of Breastfeeding in Combat Boots and Founder of the companion website. In her practice she primarily helps military mothers balance returning to active duty while continuing to breastfeed. Robyn is not only an advocate for active duty military mothers who wish to combine breastfeeding with military service, she is also a US Navy Veteran who successfully breastfed her son for over a year while on active duty as an aircraft mechanic. She is the mother of three long-term breastfed children and wife to her husband, a Chief Petty Officer in the US Navy.

Copyright © Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC. Permission to republish granted to Photo credits: kahle, Robyn Roche-Paull.