Wednesday, September 29, 2010

A Trip Through the “Milky” Way: Adventures in Astrophysics and Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding and working can be done, and can be pursued for a year and beyond. Recently I’ve met three women who nursed to between 14 – 24 months while maintaining research astrophysics careers. Support is available, you just have to ask for it and you do have to plan a little bit. FYI, you can read up on the amazing health benefits to you and baby elsewhere (I recommend La Leche League). This is about astrophysics and breastfeeding, focusing on “travel” issues (including just being away from your normal routine).

For instance, in August when my daughter Anya was 5 months old (still completely sustained on breastmilk) I attended a NASA proposal review. I had to send an email to someone I did not know well, asking for a room in which to pump and for breaks during the review (I noted that I could only participate in the review if I got 20 minute breaks in the morning and afternoon). I also chatted with the panel chair before the review started. They really took care of me! Our panel room was partitioned and yours truly got the other side of the partitioned room as a pumping room. My panel chair (male, FYI) was willing to have the proposals on which I was conflicted be discussed slightly out-of-order so I was able to take my pumping breaks and not hold up deliberations. I did have to fess up to the whole committee about what I was doing (at first I tried not to, but one guy was kind of wondering why I kept disappearing through that wall partition). Luckily, I brought Medela “cleaning wipes” with me to the NASA review. The room was wonderfully convenient but there was no sink right there so I had to clean the parts of the pump using the wipes. I had a cooler pack for the milk (no refrigerator handy).

This year I am on research sabbatical with frequent trips to Northwestern in Chicago. I travel Southwest Airlines as they allow you to carry nearly-infinite "baby stuff" with you and I bring a nursing cover and breastpump with me. I managed to time the first visit to coincide with a personal trip so my parents were in Chicago and found a grad student through my personal network who was happy to watch my daughter for 2 days. I pump milk in the morning, leaving the “sitter” with milk, and then get together with Anya at lunchtime and mid-afternoon to nurse. Once again, I was pretty open about the whole thing, including asking colleagues for offices. I got multiple offers for locations to nurse within the department and enthusiastic help (doors opened, keys lent, etc.). Also, I started with a shorter trip involving no airplanes to State College, PA where I was able to establish an "away from home" pumping routine, that time with my mother-in-law with me. You may think it is crazy to travel with your mother-in-law, but you may find that a grandmother is perfect when you need to work, even if it isn't your mother. She focused on the kid so I could focus on work!

Next up, I’m taking my daughter, my husband and my breastpump on a trip to Greece (AGN/binaries conference) so I can keep the nursing going. So, I took baby steps (first a local NASA review, then a drive to State College, then a plane trip to Chicago, now we go international). The next new thing is that the pump operates on batteries (which I am testing today at home!) and I can bring little plastic bags into which to pump milk so I don’t need to pack a ton of collection bottles.

So far, so good but you have to plan and communicate, and as I hope is obvious, you have to really make breastfeeding a priority. But here I am at six months and Anya hasn’t been sick even once and is a very happy, healthy baby. I feel good too. So, it cost a little extra in terms of money for sitters, time arranging things, and time to pump, but it was really worth it.


  1. What a great post! As a mom who nursed my son until he self-weaned at ~3 and now nursing my daughter who is 20 months, I've done many of the things the author describes.
    I pumped in the women's lounge at Caltech every day during my postdoc. I took my pump on observing runs, to conferences, and TAC meetings.
    It was challenging and foreign to navigate at first, but totally worth it. I wish I had read a post like this back then -- the support would have been great. Hopefully current and future astro-moms will read posts like this and feel good about being able to do the right thing as moms AND not have to sacrifice their career.
    Also... my kids are the healthiest ones at daycare, and the bonding after work helps make up for the hours away.

    Thanks again for this post!

  2. I just wanted to say keep it up! And support is out there when you hit the bumpy bits. I'm a postdoc now and nursed my son until he was 2 (all in graduate school). It was really about asking for what I needed. Terrifying at first, but it got easier with time. And then you realize it isn't so crazy after all. Didn't we pick this career because it was flexible and awesome? :) People use the flexibility for all sorts of things, no shame in using it for our families. Good luck and enjoy. :>

  3. Oh, so glad to hear about another woman with success on this front! I'm still nursing my 11-month-old, and I went back to work when he was 3 1/2 months old. Luckily, I had my own office, so I could pump there and not lose any precious work time.

    I've traveled for work with him, too, which resulted in me nursing him at a collaboration dinner, and nobody batted an eye. It's great that not only are more women astronomers having kids, but that the culture is more and more supportive of them dealing with all aspects of them.

  4. Definitely a good post. Thanks for sharing. I nursed my first for 15 months and did a lot of this crazy pumping stuff (control room of the Parkes radio telescope probably takes the prize for the oddest place, but also during faculty interviews, conferences etc.).

    I want to send some kudos to CfA where I was based when my first was a baby. They have a dedicated nursing room with a hospital grade pump available for staff to use which was absolutely awesome.

    My second is now just 7 months old and recently accompanied me to the SDSS collaboration meeting in Paris (with Dad in tow). One big improvement this second time around has been a nursery just a short walk from my office. This means that instead of always pumping I can walk over and nurse during the day.

  5. From a Mom who has traveled with her baby to conferences and observing while nursing, it's great to hear of other astronomer mothers facing these types of obstacles. I am now pumping at the office with my 2nd child, and as I have a shared office and our department literally has NO extra office space anymore, I find myself playing musical offices to find a place to pump (luckily astronomers travel A LOT :-), but everyone has been super accommodating lending out keys and respecting my "Do Not Disturb" sign on their own office doors!

    As for traveling, my pump is a Medela, and I ordered a foreign A/C adapter for only $20 (I needed one since I will heading to Copenhagen for a postdoc position in January), they also make storage bags that attach with tape directly to the breastshield connector to make on-the-go pumping cleaner and more convenient. I've found everything I need here:

  6. I really appreciate your post! I have also done many of the things you describe. I nursed my daughter until 17 months and my son until 2 years. Luckily I had my own office, so most of the time, pumping was easy, plus they were in a nearby daycare, so I could nurse at lunch. I traveled a few times with my daughter and husband in tow. My first trip without them was to a proposal review. My daughter was over a year, so I managed to pump in my hotel room during meal breaks. It was more difficult with my son, as he refused bottles completely after about 5 months. He visited me a few times (with my husband and daughter) late at night during thermal vacuum tests for his bedtime nursing.

    I tended not to ask for what I needed as much as I should have. I admire you for asking someone you didn't know for what you needed. It really helps pave the way for other mothers, since employers, review organizers, and conference organizers won't think to accommodate nursing mothers unless someone asks.