One of the first questions expecting mothers get when sharing their good news (after “Is it a boy or a girl?”) is, in my experience, are you going back to work? It’s a tough question. It’s a loaded question. And now, thanks to Carla Moquin of the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, it’s a question that can be rephrased:
Are you taking baby to work with you?
Out of financial necessity, Carla had to make the unexpected choice to return to the workforce four weeks after the birth of her second daughter. Years later, she runs the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, has written both an ebook titled Babies at Work: Bringing New Life to the Workplace, and just released a how-to guide for parents and companies interested in implementing a babies in the workplace program.
I spoke with Carla last week about the great potential these types of programs have for fostering community and providing parents who choose to return to work with options beyond traditional daycare.
Julie: How did you get started with Babies at Work?
Carla: I had to go back to work with both my daughters when they were 4 weeks old. I was in the middle of a divorce with my second daughter, so I had no options. Maintaining my milk supply was very difficult, and so was putting them in daycare–there were issues.
I found a credit union that allowed parents to bring their children to work. My babies were very mellow, so this was the type of thing I could have done if I had the opportunity. I started researching and there were more businesses that allowed this. So the babies were thriving at work. I interviewed companies and parents and employees who were doing this. They all talked about the benefits to the babies, the workplace, the parents.
Julie: So how do you make it work?
Carla: The few companies that tried this and it didn’t work it was because it was informal, there was no policy. What happened is parents abused it. They let the baby scream, they asked coworkers that weren’t comfortable with it to watch the children. So the key is setting up rules. The babies can’t be disruptive, so the parents respond instantly, which is exactly what the babies want. This leads to them being content.
The other thing that happened, and we have more than 100 companies now in our database that are doing this, is the community aspect. At all of the workplaces with structure, coworkers end up interacting with the babies. This replicates the community aspect–everyone feels invested in raising the children. People end up getting to know these babies and children, and becoming attached to them and they help out instinctively. If the baby cries while the parent is on the phone or needs to go to a meeting, someone will step in to help.
In companies with established rules, the coworkers want the babies there. A company I interviewed had both husband and wife working for the company. The manager went to the husband and asked him how he was going to split the baby’s time. The husband said it was a big problem because both of the parents’ teams wanted the baby to themselves. That’s consistent across all of these companies. There are always people who don’t want to play with the babies, but the overwhelming majority of people love having the babies around.
I would say the majority of people in the companies thought it wouldn’t work, but once they saw it in progress, it worked. People went the other direction in terms of enthusiastic support. People become supportive if you set it up right, in a structure where the parents are responsive, the babies are content, and the families have community, which is a lot more natural than having one adult alone all day with the baby.
I didn’t realize how smart and how social babies are from birth and they want direct interaction with people. It’s not just that they’re close, but that they’re upright so they can see what’s going on.
Julie: Now that you have founded the Parenting in the Workplace Institute, are you able to have your children at work with you?
Carla: I now have a seven year old and a three year old, so at this point they don’t come with me to my day job as a legal secretary, but I don’t want people to have to go through what I had to go through. This is a viable system for making it work for a huge number of people. If [the work environment] is not safe for the baby, it’s not going to work, or if the parent can’t take care of the baby due to their responsibilities, it’s not going to work, but in many office and retail environments, it can work.
There’s an article in Britain about the problems that have come from extended maternity leave. I’m not saying maternity leave is bad, I think it’s fantastic. But practically speaking it’s very hard in small businesses to have an employee gone for 9 months to a year. So they’re discriminating against moms or women who are of childbearing age. Bringing the baby with you allows you to do both–allowing you to nurture your children, while you’re getting stimulation for yourself and your child.
You can have it all [career & parenthood], you just can’t do it alone. Expecting moms or dads to be this perfect professional and perfect parents without going crazy is not realistic. But when you get other people involved in the care of these kids, this is how we did it when we had other family members and the community close by, and it works. It’s a potential bridge, even in countries with lots of maternity leave, and provides another option. It works and it’s not hard.
Julie: What are the steps?
Carla: The critical factor is a formal policy: put in writing what the expectations are. Key parameters: baby has to be relatively content. If there’s a baby that has a physical problem and is crying a lot, it’s not going to work, because it’s going to lead to resentment from coworkers. Some babies take a few days to get used to being at work, but after that, they stop crying because they start to get the interaction. It encourages parents to be highly responsive, babies are content, coworkers get involved. It’s OK to have a baby fix, but coworkers have to get work done, they can’t play with babies all day. The company should encourage breastfeeding because it’s so much easier to feed the baby. Not just for food, but for comfort, soothing, and the immune system.
According to the book Our Babies, Ourselves, the baby’s instinct is to nurse every 17 minutes if he or she has constant access to the breast. If you use a nursing pillow or wrap, you can nurse while you work at the computer.
Most companies have a limitation that babies can come to work only until they walk or crawl. Because with infants, liability and safety issues are virtually nonexistent. It’s also, practically speaking, easier to get work done with a non-mobile baby. There are some companies that go beyond that. One organization found that in 29% of businesses, school-aged children were allowed in the workplace on an occasional basis, like for a snow day. It’s a benefit to employees, so businesses are doing it.
This is important in terms of the AP Principles. If you’re responsive, the children are more willing and able to work with what you need from them because they feel respected. Babies have just as much emotional need and desire as adults. A lot of people don’t think of babies as thinking beings, but if you treat a baby as a miniature adult in terms of emotional needs, that is what the baby needs and leads to the baby being more content and well-adjusted and makes life easier as they get older. They are likely to be able to successfully come to work and be happy in a work environment because of that.
Designated alternate providers are a must. A lot of companies have parents find two designated alternate care providers. That eliminates the situation where the parent is in an urgent crisis situation and they don’t know what to do to care for the baby. You don’t want the administrative assistant to get the baby when the boss is busy because then she feels like she must do it because her job is on the line. Most people help on an informal basis, but having a designated person helps.
Some companies have Baby Free Zones for folks who are not comfortable with the extra noise and activity of children. This gives coworkers the knowledge that they’re taken into account if they don’t want to participate.
It’s also important to have places to change diapers, etc., so people aren’t doing it on a conference room table. So that’s a small cost–setting up the table.
Julie: Have you encountered any resistance to breastfeeding in the workplace?
Carla: Some [companies with babies at work programs] do have offices, but many are in cubicles or open plan. The majority of moms who come to work are breastfeeding because it’s so much easier. The overwhelming reason moms stop nursing is because of returning to work. So what we’ve seen is that essentially by having discrete breastfeeding in the workplace, people habituate to it.
One bookstore that I interviewed allowed moms to nurse in the break room. The manager noticed at first that the young male employees would walk into the break room and wouldn’t know where to look, or whether to leave. They were uncomfortable. He realized over time, though, that it was no longer an issue. A lot of the discomfort now with breastfeeding in public is that public breastfeeding was not the norm for a long time, so people don’t know whether to look or not look because it’s not something they’re used to seeing.
Having babies in the workplace helps people be used to breastfeeding. It’s like seeing an elbow–just another body part. I’ve never ever heard a complaint about the nursing. I think people have a vision of nursing in public of women removing their entire shirt–but it’s not an exhibitionist thing and once people realize that, they’ll accept it and it won’t be an issue anymore.
One of the other things in terms of why the babies are so happy, the babies are held a lot or held by a coworker. So they get what they want:
- Physical contact
- Highly responsive care
Those four things are critical for why it works so well and why raising your baby AP makes it so much easier to bring your baby to work.
Julie: How should parents approach their employers if they want to bring their baby to work?
Carla: I released a how-to pamphlet on this topic this week. Also, if you gave the Babies at Work book to the employer, it would be a good start because it’s a complete persuasive look at why these programs work. It’s filled with quotes and data from coworkers, parents, and executives. The strength of the book is that even people who resist this originally end up loving it.
I have never seen a negative comment from someone with a structured program. The only people who are against it are folks worked in a company without a policy in which a baby was left to scream for hours, which is not good for the baby, or people who are just hypothetically opposed–imagining what it would be like–but haven’t experienced it. The book does contain a lot of implementation details like setting it up as a pilot or test to start out. Once a program like this is in place, people are going to support it, so if you can get over that initial resistance, it will work. And because the book and pamphlets are PDF, you can search for what you need.
Julie: Any final thoughts?
Carla: The real core is that I parallel the way babies are cared for in indigenous cultures. Indigenous cultures don’t have colic. A lot of structured workplace conditions replicate those indigenous conditions. Increased holding directly leads to less crying and some research says that the prevalence of crying and colic in our culture may be due to lack of carrying. Plus the baby is more upright, so digestive systems work better. And they get bored if they’re left alone. Kids want to learn, you don’t have to force them.