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.