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updated 2/7/2007 12:38:34 PM ET 2007-02-07T17:38:34

Like many new mothers, Serena Hubbell-Masterson had lots of questions about returning to work after her daughter Isabella was born last March. How soon could she go back? What about child care? And what about nursing?

It wasn't her pediatrician, friends or even the hospital where she gave birth that provided her with the best answers. It was her employer, Ernst & Young.

Ernst & Young and breast-feeding advice? You better believe it. Companies that used to wave goodbye to their female employees once they started families are now looking for ways to help them balance motherhood with their professional lives. Ernst & Young is one of a growing number of employers offering new mothers a variety of services to help them shift back into the workforce.

The scope of services varies from employer to employer, but the ones leading the trend offer flexible work schedules, private lactation rooms and consultants, networking opportunities for working parents, on-site nurseries and assistance researching child care options.

This is more than just the companies being nice. It's a matter of survival. Retaining the most talented employees has become a cutthroat part of business in the ever-tightening job market. "We don't want to lose people when they start families," says Billie Williamson, gender equity and flexibility strategy leader at Ernst & Young.

Employees take notice. "If the flexibility and these programs were not in place, I don't believe that I would’ve been able to come back full time ,and I don't know if I'd still be with the firm," says Hubbell-Masterson.

That says it all. And it's likely the reason the number of companies offering lactation rooms went from 16 percent in 1999 to 23 percent in 2006, according to the latest Society of Human Resources Management survey. It's important for mothers who are breast-feeding, since they need to pump their breast milk into bottles about three times daily. It's not exactly something that can be done in a cubicle.

The survey put the number of firms with on-site day care at 5 percent. "I wouldn't be surprised if that number soared in the next couple of years," says Susan Seitel, president of the Work & Family Connection.

Setting up an on-site child care center is a large commitment, so many companies choose instead to offer backup care for their employees. It's more manageable, which is why about 14 percent of companies offered it last year.

When her son was a toddler, Wendy Breiterman commuted to her job at Johnson & Johnson with him. She went to work and he went to the on-site child development center. J&J has an extensive number of programs for its new parents, including Care Connect, which allows employees to speak with a nurse about any pregnancy-related concerns; lactation rooms and consultants who provide expectant mothers with literature about breast-feeding; a significant discount for a hospital-quality breast pump; and a network of working mothers who can reach out to each other to ask questions and offer advice.

In addition, when there's a school holiday that parents have to work on, they can register their child for day care on-site. Parents are regularly encouraged to fetch their kids from the day care center to have lunch with them in the company cafeteria.

J&J also has a generous policy for paid time off during and after pregnancy. Depending on the pregnancy, they get paid disability plus an extra week off.

The health care provider Cigna's comprehensive lactation program has provided impressive results. They saved $240,000 in health care expenses for breast-feeding mothers and children. There was a 77 percent reduction in lost work time due to infant illness, with an annual savings of $60,000 and lowered pharmacy costs due to 62 percent fewer prescriptions.

Hubbell-Masterson took advantage of virtually every program offered by Ernst & Young. Among the best perks was the free hospital-quality breast pump, which normally costs $300 to $500.

Says Hubbell-Masterson, "Being a first-time mom, there's so much going on, and having that resource makes a world of difference."

© 2012 Forbes.com

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