The UC Davis Breastfeeding Support Program: a Historical Perspective


Last year the Breastfeeding Support Program at UC Davis, like other UC programs, was slated for budget reduction. If the reductions went through, UC Davis would comply with state law to accommodate breastfeeding support in the workplace by continuing to provide designated lactation sites; but other program components not covered by state law, i.e., breastpumps and lactation consultation services, would be eliminated. In response, many members of the campus community spoke out to preserve the full program; even those who did not use the breastfeeding support services felt that it was still an important feature of campus life – not to mention the psychological, emotional, physical, biological and environmental benefits of breastfeeding more generally. The Foods for Health Institute stepped in to make sure that the entire Breastfeeding Support Program remained intact, as it performs such a vital function for the UC Davis community.

Barbara Ashby, UC Davis WorkLife Manager and earliest developer of the Breastfeeding Support Program, says “people might think of the program as narrow, or time-limited, and in the grand scope of what UC Davis does it may not sound glamorous or powerful, but it has a huge impact.” The Breastfeeding Support Program is an example of putting theory to practice on campus, and the effects of its reach are surprising and inspiring.

Imagining a need for the program
The mid-1980s were the time of the “supermom,” where many women in the United States were facing the cultural expectation of work and family. With an undergraduate degree from Brown, Barbara Ashby worked as a professional retail buyer on the east coast and she watched many of her female friends and colleagues juggle the responsibilities of work, family, travel, and childcare. Ashby notes that there was a lot of academic debate about the impact of childcare on children, and it was those conversations which shaped her decision to go to graduate school. Ashby came to Davis for the graduate group in Child Development and started her own family during that time. She continued as a postgraduate researcher until landing a position in 1990 as the campus Childcare Coordinator. The Childcare Coordinator position was created jointly by Student Affairs and Human Resources, and it was the first position on campus that was specific to childcare services. Ashby describes this early job as the “kernel” from which all childcare and family service programs evolved. These programs grew to inform the broader concept of work/life, which became an official unit at UC Davis in 2004.

Getting the Breastfeeding Support Program started at UCD
The inception of the Breastfeeding Support Program came from the Chancellor’s Administrative Advisory Committee on Child Care, of which Ashby was staff-support. During one of those meetings Laurie Rivers, a graduate student in nutrition, spoke to the committee about the need for breastfeeding support on campus. Rivers was working on lactation research in Dr. Kay Dewey’s lab and noticed that many of the women in her clinical studies were stopping by the nutrition office asking if they could borrow the breast pump that they used for the study. Many women also stopped in at the nutrition office to ask if there was an accommodating place to use their breast pumps on campus. Ashby recalls being personally affected by the proposal: she thought back to her time as a student and a new mother at UC Davis, resorting to pumping milk for her daughter in conditions that were far from ideal.

The committee heard the proposal and Dennis Shimek, Associate Vice Chancellor of Human Resources at the time, tasked Ashby as the principle support in exploring the ways to provide lactation support at UCD.  Over the course of one year, Ashby went to work researching different models for lactation sites, exploring real estate on campus, and establishing partnerships with various departments.

An early partnership with the UC Davis Medical Center provided access to their lactation consultant, Mary “Mo” Robbins, who provided support to new mothers in the hospital. Although funded for only ten hours a month, Mo Robbins left a lasting legacy and impact on the Breastfeeding Support Program at Davis. In 1995, Ashby had established four sites on central campus and was able to obtain pumps on loan through the Medical Center’s partnership with Ameda.  In the 1990s, anything beyond a manual breast pump was very expensive and the rental pumps were bulky and cumbersome to transport. Providing the campus community access to quality pumps in designated sites and lactation support were crucial parts of the program at this time.

Finding space and building the infrastructure to support the UCD community
In 2001, California Assembly Bill AB1025 was passed and mandated that employers provide lactation accommodations to their employees. At that time, UC Davis had a campus directive to support the needs of women in compliance with the state regulation. But from the very beginning, the Breastfeeding Support Program went above and beyond the state requirements. Ashby and her colleagues made it a point to serve the entire campus community and not solely employees. Ashby particularly focused on access for students, who are often nomadic on campus and do not have an office or area to pump or breastfeed privately.

Although it may not seem like an obvious component of a breastfeeding program, Ashby found herself deep in conversations with campus architects and engineers in an attempt to build and expand the availability of lactation sites across campus. Since AB1025 included language about providing use of a room to express milk in private that is within close proximity to the employee's work area, a five-minute walking rule was established to map potential lactation sites across campus. This major endeavor also resulted in a campus design standard that requires a lactation room “in every major new campus building unless waived by” Ashby’s office. Importantly, this standard has also applied to major renovation projects on campus.

The Breastfeeding Support Program is a multi-faceted program and on-going process at UC Davis, and there is more to maintaining and developing these spaces than anyone outside of the program could imagine. Ashby stresses that her program could not have done it alone. Aside from partnerships with the UC Davis Medical Center and Design and Construction Management, Ashby acquired donated furniture from Student Housing in order to furnish the lactation sites. Ashby also brokered a deal with the UC Davis Bookstore to sell personal kits for the breast pumps at a price just above cost.  In the early years, Facilities Services donated labor and materials to do renovation in sites that would make them safe, comfortable places for breastfeeding mothers. Ashby is proud of the organic, community development that built such an impactful program, which now provides 32 lactation sites, with several more in the planning stages.