Two days after giving birth to her first child Joshua in 2002, Colonel Karyn Thompson headed back to work.
She had planned to go on three months parental leave but Joshua's arrival five and a half weeks early turned those plans upside down.
"Nothing was in place. I was pretty tired but I could not afford to leave my unit that way," she said.
Thompson's sense of duty was unquestionably strong. So was her commitment to breastfeeding. In the first two weeks after becoming a first-time military mum, she went to work with Joshua safely tucked in a bassinet.
At that time, she was Officer Commanding of the 2 Signals Squadron in Linton Military Camp and supervised around 130 personnel, 70 per cent of whom were men.
"Fortunately, I had my own office so I would place the bassinet by my desk and shut the door whenever I breastfed Josh," she recalled.
"It was a case of being organised and focused," she said. "I always wanted to breastfeed because I wanted to give my children the best start in life."
The World Health Organisation and New Zealand's Ministry of Health recommend that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months to achieve optimal growth, development and health.
Breast milk and breastfeeding have been shown to protect against early childhood infectious diseases and to promote a special bond between mother and infant.
But even with breastfeeding's known biological and emotional benefits, interviews with a few military mums and published literature reveal that the unique working environment in the armed forces makes it more challenging for them to continue breastfeeding once they return to work compared with other working mothers.
The fact that the working environment is predominantly male is not even an issue. What is challenging is finding a place and a time to express milk, according to Robyn Roche-Paull, a former aircraft mechanic in the US Navy who authored "Breastfeeding in Combat Boots: A Survival Guide to Successful Breastfeeding While Serving in the Military".
The book, a copy of which was donated recently to the Trentham Camp Library by Upper Hutt's La Leche League, provides advice on breastfeeding based on Roche-Paull's own experience and the collective experiences of mothers who breastfed their children while serving in the US military.
"The military is a 24/7 job in itself, and many of the specialties in the military do not lend themselves well to pumping breaks," wrote Roche-Paull, who describes herself as a breastfeeding veteran.
"The reality is that you may be pumping out of the back of an ambulance, in the back of an aircraft on a long flight, or sitting on the edge of your cot in a tent. Unfortunately, more often than not, the only place available to pump is in the restroom," she observed.
Even though a military mum may be highly organised and committed, breastfeeding while on active duty takes a lot of perseverance and creativity.
Louise Waiariki, who is a catering Warrant Officer, found a way to nurse all her three children - Mikaere, Neihana and Te Ana - every time she returned to active duty.
The most challenging was nursing her second child Neihana for another 15 months after going back to work when he was four-months-old. Posted in Burnham Military Camp at that time, she would cycle to the daycare centre just outside the camp at least twice a day and express enough breastmilk to store in the freezer every night.
"One time, I was in the West Melton Rifle Range preparing for my Annual Weapons Qualification. I had been there for hours and when the time to express milk came, I scampered to the range's kitchen, expressed milk, put it in the fridge and went back to shoot," she related.
Captain Kate Milburn, who was working at the Command and Staff College at Trentham when she had her eldest child Cade in March 2010, said she would nurse her son before leaving for work in the morning and when she returned home at the end of the day.
"Sometimes, I would go home at lunchtime to breastfeed Cade or to express milk," she said.
Roche-Paull's book cites the experiences of US military personnel who overcame the challenges of finding a place and a time to express milk while on board ships or aircraft or while taking part in field training exercises.
One of the stories is that of Captain Ginger Bohl, a medical officer in the US Air Force who was sent to Afghanistan in August 2007 when her son Silas was four-months-old.
In Afghanistan, Captain Bohl expressed milk five times a day and spent between US $150 - 200 a week to ship the frozen packs of milk home to her husband and son in Texas. She continued sending Igloo coolers full of frozen breast milk until she finished her deployment in January 2008.
Having a supportive working environment certainly makes all the difference.
"I was lucky because my supervisor, who was a family man himself, and my colleagues were very supportive. If there was an urgent matter they needed to discuss with me, they knocked on my door and came in to see me even when I was breastfeeding," Thompson related.
"Most of my senior managers have had their families so they understand the pressures faced by working mothers. Also, the roles I've had allow me to have flexible work arrangements," according to Captain Milburn, an assessment and selection psychologist in the New Zealand Defence Force's Directorate of Defence Psychology.
Able Systems Combat Specialist Hayley May said the Navy and her family supported her to continue breastfeeding after returning to work.
"I was 19 when I had my son Jaedhan in 2009. He was five and a half months old when I returned to work and I continued to breastfeed him for another two months. I got a lot of support from Navy and my mum so I didn't find it difficult balancing my duties with the demands of motherhood," she said.
"The New Zealand Defence Force supports a woman's choice to continue breastfeeding after returning to active duty, and will endeavour to make arrangements so this does not impact on operational requirements and safety considerations," said Dr Brian Adams, NZDF's Director, Wellbeing.
"The NZDF recognises the importance of breastfeeding for both mother and infant, and the benefits of creating a supportive workplace for breastfeeding women. We are committed to promoting an inclusive and equitable work environment for our personnel," he added.
Workplace support is vital because often, military mums don't live close to their extended family.
"Being organised is the key," according to Lieutenant Commander Bronwyn Heslop, who breastfed her two sons James and Ollie, aged 7 and 6 years old, respectively.
"I don't think it would be difficult if you have a support network or if you have family who can help a little bit."
Heslop, who is the Base Administration Officer at Devonport Naval Base, returned to active duty to teach navigation when James was eight months old.
"I would nurse him before I went to work and when I returned home. During the day, my mother-in-law would give him water and yogurt."
"It's achievable but it's not easy," she said when asked about juggling the demands of motherhood with military duties. "The fact that we are mothers is a bonus to the NZDF. Military mums are highly organised; they are multi-tasking experts and are patient and compassionate."
- Army News
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