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Back in the workforce after the birth of both of her daughters two decades ago, Jackie Shuk, who nursed her babies, used the only space she could to express milk when she was at work: a closet.

Hardly the best location or most sanitary, it was what it was: a place she could use without making too much fuss about it.

"It was very challenging," remembers Shuk, global director of Ford Land at Ford Motor Co. "It was stressful. You end up not producing, not going on as long as you want to go (nursing) because it’s just so hard. You’re just uncomfortable."

Now, Ford is stepping up its efforts to support nursing mothers and ease their transition back into the workforce. And they're doing it with specially designed mother's rooms.

The automaker has installed 22 mother's rooms this year at nine Ford facilities, each specially designed to create a comfortable and soothing space for nursing moms to pump breast milk while they're at work. 

Designed by Ford Land — the automaker's real estate arm — the rooms include special private suites with hospital-grade breast pumps and supportive chairs; a common seating area; portable desks, so moms can pump and work on their laptops at the same time; lockers; a sitting area; and a fridge.

At one of the mother's rooms at the automaker's World Headquarters on Michigan Avenue in Dearborn, there are even lactation-friendly snacks and tea.

Sara Robertson, a finance manager at Ford who has a 3-year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter, appreciates the automaker's efforts. Robertson, who just finished nursing her daughter earlier this fall, said the new rooms make it easier on nursing moms "to keep up and juggle it all."

"I was able to take phone calls easily, use my computer with little interruption and have a good space to be dutiful to my family but also to my job," she said.

The 22 new rooms are the start. Ford eventually plans to install 75 mother's rooms altogether over the next years, primarily in southeast Michigan. It'll also install another 25 at some of its smaller sites that will be lactation and wellness rooms.

Shuk said the automaker had dedicated lactation rooms in place before, but they were inconsistent. 

"That’s why we said there’s a much better way to kind of make it friction-less for the working mom," Shuk said. "We have to support her coming back in that transition to the workforce."

Ford isn't the only major employer doing more to ease that transition for nursing moms. General Motors Co. has dedicated lactation rooms at all of its North American sites — more than 100 — with sinks, lockers, even a corkboard, whiteboard or other sharing devices in some rooms where moms can share photos of their babies.

The company also has an intranet site where employees returning from maternity leave can learn how to gain access to the lactation rooms and find the locations closest to them, said Jennifer Korail, a GM spokeswoman.

The University of Michigan has dozens of lactation rooms across its campus and medical center. Like GM, it also has a special website, pinpointing the location of each room and a contact person. It also uses a star system to denote the amenities each room has.

Required by law

The Affordable Care Act requires all employers covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act to not only provide a private space for nursing moms to express milk but give them breaks to do it. Along with the federal law, many states and even cities have their own laws, offering even more protections for nursing moms. 

But how compliant employers are in supporting nursing moms and providing private rooms to pump is all over the board, said Sheila Janakos, founder of Healthy Horizons, a California firm that offers corporate lactation consultation as well as support for breastfeeding women. A certified lactation consultant, Janakos has offered breastfeeding support for more than 30 years.

"I still to this day have moms calling me with horror stories — how they’re pumping in the bathroom and not allowed to take breaks," Janakos said.

But Janakos, who consulted with Ford on its rooms, says it's actually in a company's best interest — and it bolsters the bottom line — to support nursing moms. Her firm has found a 5-to-1 return on investment for a comprehensive lactation program, meaning for every $1 they spend on a mother's room and breast pump equipment, they earn $5.

By making it easier for nursing moms, it cuts down on sick days and reduces how much an employer would potentially spend on training a new employee, Janakos said.

"It’s very far-reaching if we’re not supporting them (nursing moms) on the most basic level," Janakos said. "It’s about making the transition as easy as possible."

Janakos sees lactation rooms and programs becoming more standard these days. 

"When we first started, it was just the one-offs that seemed interested," she said. "The other ones said, 'The moms will figure it out.' It wasn’t on the radar. Now they (employers) know if they want to have happy employees — and retain their employees — they have to have this basic level of service."

Ford focus group

To make Ford's mother's rooms just right, the automaker turned to the experts who would know best what would make the perfect lactation room: working moms at Ford.

Shuk said Ford officials outlined a starting design for the rooms but then relied on a focus group of about 60 moms to guide them. 

Robertson attended three or four workshops, going over the design. They talked about the amenities the rooms might have, possibly even a vending machine or other breastfeeding supplies.

In the end, "people were more on the side of 'I really need the room to be private, to be clean, comfortable, but also to be able to get my work done,'" remembers Robertson.

They even tested out more than a dozen chairs, tagging which they liked best.

"There were some that were slouchy and comfortable that you could take a nap in. Some were just uncomfortable," said Robertson. "In the end, it really came down to we needed substantial chairs that you can sit upright in."

What they settled on are straight-back chairs that are good for work and pumping. "They get the job done," said Robertson.

As the mother's rooms are installed, Shuk said she's heard positive feedback from both moms and dads at Ford. Shuk says the rooms are just one element of the "culture changing."

"You start seeing what we want to bring to the employees and where are the moments that matter that set Ford apart," Shuk said.

mfeighan@detroitnews.com

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