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Mom seeks breast-feeding break for M.D. exam

/ Source: The Associated Press

A breast-feeding mother who wants extra breaks so she can pump milk during the licensing exam that she needs to secure a prestigious medical residency has asked a Massachusetts judge to settle her dispute with the board that administers it.

Sophie Currier has completed a joint M.D./Ph.D. program at Harvard University while having two babies in the last two years. Her goal is a residency at Massachusetts General Hospital and a career in medical research.

"The one requirement is to pass this exam," she said Tuesday.

Currier, 33, requested extra break time during the nine-hour test, saying that if she does not nurse her 4-month-old daughter, Lea, or pump breast milk every two to three hours she risks medical complications.

The National Board of Medical Examiners, which administers the test, said it understands the needs of breast-feeding mothers but cannot grant extra time for pumping.

"If we are variable in the time that's allotted to trainees, we alter the performance of the examination," board spokeswoman Dr. Ruth Hoppe said.

Currier filed a petition in state Superior Court in Massachusetts asking the court to intervene and grant her the extra time during the test later this month.

Her attorney, Christine Collins, said a hearing was scheduled for Wednesday in state court.

But board attorney Joe Savage said he filed a notice Tuesday to have the case removed to federal court.

Extra hour each day of test

Currier, who lives Brookline, Mass., also has a 22-month-old son, Theo, and has already received special accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act for dyslexia and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; she can take the nine-hour test, which is offered throughout the nation several times a year, over two days instead of one. She is seeking an extra 60-minute break each day to pump breast milk.

If she doesn't get the extra time, she said, she fears she could become engorged or develop blocked milk ducts or mastitis, a painful breast inflammation.

"I can get away with pumping about every three hours," she said.

Currier is feeling added pressure because she already took the test in April, when she was 8 1/2 months pregnant, and failed by a few points.

Hoppe said other nursing mothers who have taken the exam have found the 45 minutes of permitted break time sufficient.

"We've had women who either fed their infant or pumped during their break time," she said.

But Dr. Ruth Lawrence, who chairs the American Academy of Pediatrics' breast-feeding section, called the medical examining board's position too rigid.

"It's a classic institutional response," said Lawrence, a professor of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester. "You would hope that everyone in the medical profession had an appreciation for the tremendous importance of breastfeeding one's infant."

Medical authorities have long touted the benefits of breast-feeding for mother and baby. Lawrence said the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that babies be fed breast milk exclusively for the first six months of life and that they continue to nurse for at least six more months while other foods are added to their diets.

Discrimination law for nursing mom

Some employers have made accommodations for breast-feeding mothers such as providing lactation rooms for pumping in private, but federal anti-discrimination laws do not protect nursing mothers.

The Breastfeeding Promotion Act, pending in Congress, would protect women from being fired or punished for pumping or nursing during breaks.