For their flagship project in the masters program in adult learning to school of education At Virginia Commonwealth University, a team of six students explored whether working mothers at VCU Health were adequately protected, supported, and empowered to express breast milk at work.
The students interviewed dozens of VCU Health employees, researched federal and state laws, collected data, identified lactation guidelines at other workplaces, and ultimately came up with a set of recommendations – the first of which was to encourage VCU Health to adopt a lactation support policy.
On June 1 – in large part due to the project – VCU Health implemented a Team Member Lactation Support Policy that provides guidance and resources to its employees on expressing breastmilk on-site. work during working hours.
“Working on this project has been so energizing,” said Kirsten Olsen, one of the students who worked on the project. “The whole process of learning how to work in an integrated team has been a real gift. Seeking together what should be a priority in work, disagreeing about what should be a priority, and learning how to turn those conflicts into moments of discovery and advancement is a skill that cannot be learned alone. I am eternally grateful to everyone on the Capstone team.
In addition to Olsen, the team included Anna Clark, Brett Currie, Tasia Thompson, Sheila Regan and Beth Marcus.
While working on their project, titled “Are working mothers at VCU Health properly and effectively protected, promoted, supported, educated and empowered in their lactation efforts?” the students were connected with Valerie Coleman, manager of lactation services for VCU Health, who served as their sponsor.
“Their work provided strong justification for the need for such a policy to protect women from discrimination when they request a clean and safe space, and time, to maintain their milk supply while pumping,” Coleman said. . “Their research showed that many women were unable to achieve their breastfeeding goals due to lack of support and resources when returning to work. As of June 1, 2021, laws in place, both state and federal, require compliance and our policies must align with the evidence and the law.
VCU Health’s new policy, Coleman said, will promote, protect and support breastfeeding.
“Science overwhelmingly indicates that breast milk is nutritionally the best for human infants,” Coleman said. “One of the goals is to protect the gut flora, the gut super genome, the microbiome. Artificial milk substitutes or milk from another species (cows) sensitize the gut before it is ready to easily digest substances other than human milk Infants who do not receive breast milk are at increased risk of ear infections, eczema, diarrhea and vomiting, hospitalization for diseases of the respiratory tract in the first year, asthma, allergies, obesity, diabetes, leukemia and SIDS (sudden infant death syndrome).Women who do not breastfeed are at increased risk of breast and ovarian cancer, metabolic syndrome, postpartum depression, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, diabetes, high blood pressure and heart disease.
Breastfeeding is the most effective intervention for improving chronic and acute health outcomes, she said, and it has a significant impact on the health trajectory of women’s and children’s lives.
The Capstone project, Coleman said, sparked a process that led to the implementation of the new policy by VCU Health.
“The students laid the groundwork by identifying in our own backyard the barriers that women faced and the lack of awareness of compliance issues among many in supervisory positions,” she said. “They visited the pump room spaces provided on the medical campus and interviewed women to collect primary data. They were innovative and dynamic.
The new policy outlines several responsibilities on the part of the health system and its employees to provide a supportive environment that allows lactation team members to express their milk.
It provides guidelines on how to give team members reasonable breaks to express milk, as well as a clean, private place to express milk that is not a toilet and is located near the team member’s work area. It also contains guidelines for members to store expressed milk in workplace refrigerators or personal coolers.
The policy also requires team members who wish to pump during working hours to keep managers informed of their needs so they can work collaboratively to coordinate reasonable accommodations. And he says team members need to do their part to help keep lactation rooms clean.
Olsen, manager of the Pregnancy and Parenting Partnership Program in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at VCU Medical School, came up with the idea for the capstone project to focus on VCU’s health and supporting lactation.
The idea grew out of another research project Olsen had conducted around the psychographic effects of infant food marketing. As part of the initial research, Olsen interviewed pregnant women who work at VCU Health, many of whom expressed anxiety about being supported with their lactation needs upon returning to work. Olsen suggested further research into lactation support at VCU Health. She introduced the topic to the synthesis group, and they voted to continue the project under the supervision of Robin HurstEd.D., associate professor in the School of Education.
“Students had a choice of assignments and chose this one to investigate. It was a remarkable effort on their part, and they completed their study in one semester,” Hurst said. “They were very focused and determined during the semester to find out what VCU Health was offering their nursing employees.”
The student project, added Hurst, is a prime example of the “learning-by-doing” process that has been a cornerstone of adult learning graduate students at VCU for four decades.
“The action learning process is about asking questions, and not just any questions, but challenging, and often new, questions to uncover problems,” Hurst said. “Students work with informants, as well as each other to analyze the problem and responses, and provide suggestions and recommendations on how to solve the problem.”
In the case of Olsen, the work did not stop after the delivery of the summary project. In the spring of 2020, Olsen and Coleman made a presentation to a VCU Health Human Resources task force that highlighted the need for policy. Shortly after, COVID-19 brought everything to a halt. But the HR group started meeting later that summer and Olsen worked with them.
They met weekly, working with and gaining approval from various divisions of VCU Health, including facilities, legal, risk management and management. HR has also developed learning modules to train VCU Health team members on the new policy.
“It was announced that it was going live and it is now VCU Health policy,” Olsen said. “As of June 1, we have a lactation policy and learning exchange modules.”
In the weeks that followed, Olsen said, other VCU schools reached out to express interest in adopting a similar policy.
“If you take the time to create something like this and do all the hard work, then it’s repeatable,” she said. “Somebody else can just say, ‘Oh, lovely. You have a policy and it’s already been approved by risk management? Great. We’ll just roll it out. It can just be replicated throughout the system.
Subscribe to VCU News
Subscribe to VCU news at newsletter.vcu.edu and get curated stories, videos, photos, news clips and event listings delivered to your inbox.