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In my opinion

The breastfeeding conference presenter

Babies rarely work to their mother’s timetable or a conference schedule.


Conference participation is part of the regular routine for academics. Many scholars look forward to the annual ritual of Congress or attendance at more specialized conferences and workshops. These are, after all, places to reconnect with old friends and acquaintances, and to recharge with intellectual stimulation and interaction. Conferences sustain our commitment to academic work, often pursued in isolation.

But, while these activities are voluntary and bring personal pleasure, they’re also an expected element of our professional life. They allow us to meet new colleagues, explore potential research partnerships, build up our CVs and thus secure employment, tenure or raises, and obtain research funding. They’re a means to disseminate research assessed by granting agencies and university research offices.

Parents of young children – and often women in particular – face an additional challenge to the usual issues of getting conference funding, making travel arrangements and putting the final touches on conference papers. They often need to find childcare. That issue came to a head at the 2013 Congress of the Humanities and Social Sciences held at the University of Victoria. Like the 2012 Congress at the universities of Waterloo and Wilfrid Laurier, UVic initially offered no childcare. But a petition initiated by Anna Guttman and Kristin Burnett of Lakehead University, and signed by hundreds of academics, forcefully challenged that decision. The petition, along with demands by scholarly association presidents and university representatives, led Congress organizers to make arrangements with a private child care provider (though, as Drs. Guttman and Burnett noted, the last-minute nature of these arrangements and prohibitive cost was not congenial to attendance).

The pressure put on organizers in 2013 did, however, lead to much better provisions for Congress 2014 at Brock University, which offered a flexible, on-campus program. Cost remains an issue, although at the 2015 Congress in Ottawa, childcare will cost $45 to $60 a day, down from $80 at some past meetings. While faculty at some universities can claim dependent care costs when on university business, and the tri-council grant program has begun to develop some provisions for single parents and nursing mothers, many conference participants fall outside these categories. Drs. Guttman and Burnett have called on the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences to create a subsidy for those most affected by childcare costs – the unemployed and sessional instructors – as is the practice of some larger associations (like the Modern Language Association) where the subsidy is available to all members. Graduate students too could benefit from this type of aid.

While many people would welcome such initiatives, women with very young children face an additional problem: they often want and need to attend conferences when they’re still breastfeeding. I have found myself in that position a few times in the past decade. While in other circumstances I might have been able to leave my children at home with my husband, breastfeeding creates a new hurdle. For some women, this situation can last from two to six months. For others, either because they want to breastfeed or their infants want them to, it can last two to three years. In either case it is a reality. And, with the World Health Organization and local breastfeeding groups advocating breastfeeding for the first two years of an infant’s life, it is a reality for an increasing number of mothers.

That raises more issues for mothers of young children. Babies rarely work to their mother’s timetable and certainly not to a conference schedule. I was reminded of this at a recent conference, where a participant with an infant desperately wanted to attend a session, right at the point when her baby needed feeding. After making sure that the presenters wouldn’t mind, she whisked that baby in and sat quietly at the back. (It was not a conference, nor a session, where it would have been an issue.) Still, the young woman felt some discomfort at bringing her baby to a session and, at a minimum, didn’t feel she could take it for granted that it would be acceptable.

None of this should be surprising. In general, academics still work in a male professional model that separates the personal from the professional. Yet those two spheres are inseparable for some families. So it was heartening to me to see a breast-feeding conference participant. I hope that other young women at the conference – those who were pregnant or thinking of starting families – will see that they can do this too. I’m not suggesting that we make a practice of including wailing infants in conference sessions, but we need to make room for the reality of breastfeeding conference participants. Let’s support these women and together normalize the practice.

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  1. Mary Valentich / April 11, 2015 at 12:44

    I know “we” have made progress, but it was still disheartening to hear of the struggles of mothers and fathers in academe regarding both child care and breastfeeding. Culture change is so needed. Yet, in 1978 when I gave birth, the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Calgary was very supportive and my late partner, Jim Gripton and I, had no difficulty in March, the week after the birth of our son in offering our joint Human Sexuality class, going to faculty meetings, and participating in May our first national social work conference at the Learneds at Western Ontario as a threesome…a breast-feeding threesome. One simply goes ahead and remains mindful of clearing out of a room…if the baby does start to become noisy as babies do. Some years later when the Learneds was in Quebec, child care for our 5 year old was available on campus.
    Why have we not built on these positive foundations, now many years past? Is it time for feminism to once again become a recognized perspective for university policies and practices?!

  2. Alison / May 31, 2015 at 18:57

    Thanks for writing about this! I’ve requested a private room to pump and dump at conferences in the past, but had to limit how long I attended for. I also brought my 6 month old to the Berks in 2011. While I felt supported being there, and had my baby in a carrier listening to a panel, the clapping every 15-20 minutes kept waking her, and she kept crying when woken, and I left. Babies just don’t mix so well with events that need some quiet so all can hear. It was a tough thing to learn. And I don’t see many solutions.

  3. Erin / July 2, 2015 at 16:03

    This year, I decided to attend Congress knowing I would still be breastfeeding my 8 month old daughter. On the registration form, participants were asked to indicate any accommodations they might require for disabilities or other issues. I indicated I needed a room for breastfeeding. A few weeks later, I received a call from a Congress organizer who pronounced rather proudly that I could breastfeed anywhere I wanted! I said I was aware of the jurisprudence but would require somewhere quiet and would prefer not to nurse in front of colleagues. I asked if a room could be made available, not just for breastfeeding, but also for pumping, which frankly can’t be done just anywhere. Several days later, another call came, a room had been found. I am pleased with the resolution but surprised that the request seemed so foreign. New moms shouldn’t have to advocate for a small, quiet space to pump or feed, even if, by law, we are free to do these activities wherever we want.

  4. Catherine Rubincam / October 12, 2016 at 18:49

    Catherine Gidney’s article took me back to the late 1980s, when there was much less support for breastfeeding in public spaces generally, let alone for women academics trying to balance this aspect of motherhood with participation in an academic conference. When my baby was about 6 months old, I attended a one-day conference at a neighbouring university which included a panel on a subject highly germane to my current research. Since it was only a hour’s drive from my home, I left the baby at home with my husband; so the issue was not how to nurse in public but how to find an opportunity to express milk in timely fashion. Lunch was scheduled for 12:30 p.m., and, as I couldn’t find the lunch location without guidance, I figured I needed definitely to be in the conference room at that time. How, then, was I to find a chance to express after listening to the papers and before the general departure for lunch? Fortunately, there was a fairly generous allocation of time for questions at the end of the panel of papers; so I seized this opportunity to deke out to a washroom and express my milk, returning, slightly breathless, just in time to join the crowd as they set out for the lunch room. Almost immediately I was hailed by one of the panellists, whom I knew well, who said, “Oh, there you are! I was puzzled that you didn’t identify yourself when someone asked a question just now that I knew you would be best able to answer.” Apparently, he had actually mentioned my name, and been somewhat embarrassed when I did not respond. So I had to stop congratulating myself on keeping my maternal functions decorously hidden in this academic context (which was very much the prevailing custom in 1987), and explain where I had been and why, hoping that my male colleague would not be unduly distressed by this (he wasn’t!).
    Needless to say, I am glad that my younger colleagues of today are making progress in getting their needs met more appropriately.