Having started my business with a little person in my lap or crawling around my feet, I am an avid advocate for parents who want to bring a baby to work for a period of time after returning from maternity leave. Making this allowance for employees enables them to further develop the parenting relationship after baby joins their family and, where applicable, also elongates the length of time a parent is able to exclusively breastfed a child. Employers who want to have a family friendly environment can make some simple adjustments to their employee manual that allow this to be possible and productive for both the employee and the employer. In this post, I will outline our experience with allowing young children to be at work with a parent and chart a way forward for the business who wants to adjust their policies to be more accommodating to parents of young children.
Cotton Babies started when our oldest child, Andrew, was eight weeks old. By the time we hired our first employee, Andrew was about 18 months old and I needed help filling orders and answering the phone. Our first employee started working for us when she was several months pregnant with her first child. When her baby was born, she took about six weeks off and then decided that she was ready to come back to work. Aiden came to work with her and stayed in a sling or played on the floor while the two of us worked on orders. Our second employee also had a baby not long after starting work for Cotton Babies. When she felt up to returning to work, she also brought her baby to work. We had three babies around, and I was pregnant, but at that point in time we were still working out of my home, so it was easy for all of the kids to hang out with us and play with each other. We fed the babies in between snapping diapers, packing orders, and answering the phone.
We’ve grown a lot since those early days. Our staff levels vary seasonally. At times, we are up around 100 employees. Right now, we have 60-70 staff members between all of our locations. Six of our moms are expecting and one is expecting twins! Most of our moms tend to work right up until when their baby is born. After their baby is born, mom is given the option to return to work with her baby when she’s ready. They are welcome to take their full 12 weeks of maternity leave, but most seem to come back to work when their baby is 5-8 weeks old. When asked why, most of them are thankful to be around adults and happy to have a few extra hands around to hold their baby. Cuddling babies is not a documented benefit of working at Cotton Babies, but there’s something extra wonderful about snuggling a little person in the middle of another amazing day at Cotton Babies. It’s been fun to watch the culture of our business develop around the fun of welcoming the tiniest people into the everyday life of being a working parent.
Someone added the months up recently, and we realized that we had spent over 32 years of total parent and baby time in the office…. As we have learned how to make it work, we have adjusted the work environment, the job expectations, and the employee guidelines to reflect what works for Cotton Babies, for the staff member and for their baby.
“I’ve worked part-time for Cotton Babies for over 3 years, so Sawyer is actually my second baby I’ve brought here. My babies have always loved the office environment, and I love introducing them to a normal day in society and can tell it has influenced how they’ve developed. We of course had our fair share of tough days at the office, but I know I’m personally a better mom to my kids because of the balance I get to have in my life. I wouldn’t trade this experience for anything, and cannot explain the passion, appreciation, and the loyalty I feel for this company.” ~ Gina, Human Resources
While the rest of this blog post is written using the word “moms”, it isn’t exclusive of dads. We occasionally have a dad who will bring his child to work as well. Most of our experience is with moms though, so that’s the perspective that I used in writing this blog post. So without further ado… the details.
Is it appropriate to have a baby in a work environment?
I wonder if we have to ask this question because our culture has defined “normal” to be something different than reality. Women have babies. Babies need their parents. Cultural norms in the Western world have traditionally confined mothers of young children to home-making. While that is what some women want to do, it isn’t what all of us want to do. As long as mom enjoys doing her job with her baby at her side and it is safe for her baby to be with her while she does her job, I believe that it is perfectly appropriate to have her baby present. At Cotton Babies, all employees add value to our bottom line. The employees who are bringing their baby to work are happy with their choice to parent at work. Of our moms who choose to breastfeed, nearly all of them are still breastfeeding when their baby is 12 months old, a statistic that exceeds the national average of 27%. These employees also remain with Cotton Babies longer because they didn’t have to start using childcare before they were ready. Our training costs are lower because our turnover is lower. Most of our moms have decided to stay at the company, even after their baby aged out of being able to be at work all the time. Some of them have been with us through multiple pregnancies. We’ve even had a few moms with twins.
The work day looks a little different when a baby is at the office. That’s ok.
What about feeding the baby?
We allow moms to take as many breaks as they need to feed their baby. These are paid breaks. While our moms are welcome to step into a private area if they need to go feed their baby, most of the time, they choose to feed the baby at their desk. Occasionally, a guest in the office is surprised to see a mom breastfeeding at her desk. While we understand that it’s an adjustment to see a baby at work, and perhaps even an additional adjustment to see a baby breastfeeding at work, it is our priority to ensure that moms and babies are together. As a mom who has spent hours upon hours working while nursing a baby, we know that (most of the time) there’s absolutely nothing about feeding a baby that prevents an email from being responded to, a call from being taken, or some other quiet task from being accomplished. In the retail store, most of our moms are able to nurse in a sling while helping a customer.
I started working at the retail store when my first baby was 7 months old. After 5 months, she went to my sister’s 2 days a week and I stayed on with Cotton Babies until I had my second daughter. She started coming to work with me at 5.5 weeks! As much as I love staying home with our girls, I love working too. A significant portion of my day is made simpler by being able to bring my baby to work with me. I enjoy helping soon-to-be/new parents and I’ve adored being with each of my girls as babies. I am grateful that I didn’t have to choose one or the other. ~ Jeanine, Shift Supervisor
What if the baby cries?
If the baby is fussy, moms can go to a separate room to help them settle. If it’s better for the baby to go home, we give mom the flexibility to make that decision. Every full-time staff member at Cotton Babies is given approximately 26 days of paid time off each year to enable them to take the time that they need for their family.
What about play time?
Some of our moms will keep a pack and play close by, so their baby has a place to be down and play with a toy. Others find creative ways to create play space on their lap or on the floor near their desk. I have one mom right now who has an old (disconnected) keyboard placed in front of her active keyboard so her baby, sitting on her lap, can “type” along while she works. In the retail stores, most babies are worn in baby carriers during their mom’s shift.
What about naps?
Most of our babies still take two naps a day. Our moms typically let their baby sleep in a carrier. Sometimes, mom will bring a pack & play to work. The pack & play can stay by her desk, or she’s welcome to set it up in an empty office.
What about safety?
Babies are welcome in just about any position where it’s safe.
How long is the baby allowed to be at work?
The baby can stay at work with mom until the baby is mobile. We define “mobility” as when independent exploration starts. Every baby is different. For some babies, that’s when they start to crawl. For others, that’s when they start to walk. A baby reaching the mobility stage generally corresponds to a point in time when mom is already looking to either stay home with her baby or has already prepared outside resources to care for her baby during office hours.
You’re so relaxed about this. Don’t people take advantage of you?
No. We have good people working for us. They understand their jobs and they know what it’s going to take to get it done. Our office might not look like our culture is used to seeing the business world work… but it works.
I brought my daughter to the office full time when she was 7 weeks old and we jumped right in! After an adjustment period, we have settled into a daily routine. Becoming a parent changes how you approach EVERY activity, work is just another thing to re-learn. I feel we will reach our breastfeeding goals easily, and I feel a lot of loyalty to Cotton Babies for allowing me such a unique opportunity. ~ Holly, Accounts Payable
What about older children?
We don’t allow older children to be in the office or at the retail store as an everyday occurrence. We do, however, permit a parent to bring an older child into the office occasionally if there is an issue with school closure or childcare. They bring books, iPads, game devices, laptops, coloring books and other things for their child to do while in the office. Generally speaking, the parent grabs an empty conference room for an older child to play in or keeps their younger child within eyesight.
What about the legal side of life?
While we have a quiet room where moms can feed their babies, we do not provide babysitting or a childcare center. Our building isn’t set up for that type of care and the babies who come to work with our moms are usually too young to be away from their mom for very long. Before bringing their baby to work, our moms sign a liability release. We also have a section of our employee manual specifically dedicated to the general expectations and guidelines around having a baby at work. See links below for reference copies of these documents.
Where can I find more information?
Parenting In The Workplace Institute – http://www.babiesatwork.org
The New York Times:
– Bringing Baby to Work – NYTimes.com
– Maternity-Leave Alternative – Bring the Baby to Work …
Bloomberg – Bringing Your Child to Work—Every Day? – Businessweek
USA Today – Day care’s new frontier: Your baby at your desk … – USA Today
How would I implement a change like this in my workplace?
The first step is determining whether or not there is interest. If your staff members are content, there might not be a need for change. If you are loosing staff members after having adopted or given birth to a child, implementing a “Babies At Work” policy might be something to consider.
The hard cost to allow a non-mobile baby in the workplace with a parent is low. The parent is recognizing that their job responsibilities and performance expectations haven’t changed. You’re recognizing that people are creative and that a great deal can be accomplished differently than what might be typical. You’re allowing flexibility and in exchange, the parent is committing to ensure that their job responsibilities are accomplished. While things sometimes look a little bit different, we’ve seen the net result to our business be the same, if not greater.
The biggest hurdles to overcome have less to do with job performance and more to do with what’s happening in everyone else’s head. Clients, customers, vendors, employees, guests, and service providers may express discomfort with breastfeeding, question a woman’s commitment to her career, feel uncertain about how to respond to a baby in the workplace, or become annoyed with occasionally hearing a child. My favorite way to respond to those concerns has become, “She’s getting her job done. Her baby is content. Can you help me understand why that makes you uncomfortable?” Cultural expectations of a woman’s place being in the home with her young child don’t necessary reflect what all women want to do. While we support and encourage the moms who choose to stay home, we also love seeing those who stay with us also achieving their career goals.
Many employers don’t believe this will work in their workplace. There are places where that’s true. We wouldn’t allow a child to be with a parent in any work place where dangerous things are stored, used, or where dangerous actives are occurring. We wouldn’t want a child in a work place where emotionally intense things happen all the time. The areas where we allow a non-mobile baby to be with a parent at Cotton Babies are places that both we and the parent have decided are safe. Generally speaking, in an office or retail store environment, very few legitimate hazards exist that don’t also exist in a home or aren’t easily resolvable to everyone’s benefit.
The paperwork side of implementing a “Babies At Work” policy is simple. We have a basic liability release that the parent will sign and we have a section in our employee manual that outlines the expectations and general guidelines for having a baby at work. For the benefit of employers wanting to provide more a more open policy for the parents they have on staff, I’m providing a copy of our Babies At Work – Liability Waiver Form as well as a copy of our Babies At Work Policy. Both documents have been reviewed by an employment attorney and are in compliance with federal employment laws as well as employment laws in Missouri and Washington states. State laws vary, so be sure to check with an attorney before using these documents for your own purposes.
We do what we do because it’s important to me to see women progress in our rights as women. We are able to be mothers and still pursue our dreams. Our children are able to be born and still receive the physical and emotional nourishment they need from a working mom. Traditional cultural practice is really only thing standing in the way of making this happen in more workplaces. I hope this post enables at least a few businesses to broaden their workplace policies. Should you be a mom who wants to bring your baby to work, I also hope that I’ve been able to provide some language to help facilitate a conversation with your employer. You can do this.