News

Breastfeeding Mothers Competing in the Olympics Can Now Bring Their Babies

olympic swimmer doing butterfly stroke

Yadira G. Morel / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Mothers competing in the Tokyo Olympics can now bring their breastfeeding babies.
  • This reverses an initial ruling that prohibited the infants due to COVID-19 restrictions.
  • The move is a promising action towards validating the importance of breastfeeding, but change is still needed.


In an about-face move, the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics will allow nursing mothers who are competing to bring their babies with them to the summer games. This change to their COVID-19 restrictions’ policy is heralded as a step in the right direction.

The International Olympic Committee previously stated that family members could not accompany athletes to the games later this month. That meant breastfeeding moms would have to leave their babies at home. But public outcry from advocates and the athletes themselves led to a reversal in that policy.

“The restrictions should have never taken place,” states Cecilia Tomori, PhD, associate professor and Director of Global Public Health & Community Health at Johns Hopkins University School of Nursing.

Public Health Issue

COVID-19 virus numbers in Japan are continuing to climb. In fact, the nation recently declared another COVID-19 state of emergency in Tokyo. In light of the still-present threat of COVID-19, the IOC put measures in place to try to create a safe environment for the athletes.

But some officials note that the choice the female athletes had to make was more far-reaching than a safety decision. It was actually a public health concern.

Cecilia Tomori, PhD

It’s a very common issue that the needs of mothers are overlooked. And breastfeeding mothers are in that group. They are essentially ignored and not even considered to be relevant to the conversation.

— Cecilia Tomori, PhD

“The research is very, very clear that breastfeeding has these profound consequences for both moms and babies. And so, interfering with it, preventing people from being able to feed their babies, is really problematic. That is why it’s a public health issue. I think it’s at the intersection of public health and human rights,” Dr. Tomori notes.

She says the needs of lactating mothers and nursing babies were not taken into account when making the initial ruling. Unfortunately, this type of situation is all too familiar.

“It’s a very common issue that the needs of mothers are overlooked. And breastfeeding mothers are in that group. They are essentially ignored and not even considered to be relevant to the conversation,” states Dr. Tomori.

Reversing the earlier decision was a step in the right direction, she says. It not only sent a positive message about breastfeeding. It sent the message that what these lactating mothers had to say made a difference.

Breastfeeding Matters

Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher, U.S. soccer player Alex Morgan, and U.S. marathoner Aliphine Tuliamuk all took to social media to express their sadness, anger, and frustration at initially being forced to make the choice of staying at home and nursing their children or compete in the Olympic games. Advocates noted that the decision didn’t take into account the importance of being able to breastfeed their babies.

The ability to breastfeed is incredibly beneficial for both the mother and child. Breastfed infants have a reduced risk of asthma, diabetes, sudden infant death syndrome, and gastrointestinal disorders. But the CDC notes that only one in four infants are exclusively breastfed by the time they are 6 months old, as recommended. Furthermore, low breastfeeding rates increase medical costs for both mother and child by more than $3 billion.

One of the primary reasons mothers said they stop breastfeeding? Work.

Joanna Kreyling, MSN, CPNP-PC, IBCLC

Pumping may not always be possible at times needed for the mother to prevent painful clogged ducts and even mastitis. Weaning children is a personal decision and should be driven by the mother-baby dyad, not your chosen work environment.

— Joanna Kreyling, MSN, CPNP-PC, IBCLC

And preparing feedings while going back to work is not always an option.

“Pumping may not always be possible at times needed for the mother to prevent painful clogged ducts and even mastitis. Weaning children is a personal decision and should be driven by the mother-baby dyad, not your chosen work environment,” states Joanna Kreyling, MSN, CPNP-PC, International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant, Nest Collaborative.

Moving Forward

These athletes, and many other women every day, are put in the position having to decide between doing what they love or caring for their child. It’s a decision that a nursing mother shouldn’t have to make. The hope is that decisions like the IOC reversal, that recognize the importance of breastfeeding babies, are a move toward positive change.

“We respect the needs of new mothers. We want to create policy change that empowers and eases their transition back into the workplace. We need to eliminate barriers to breastfeeding by further giving mothers physical spaces and time to bond with their newborns and provide all the health benefits of breast milk,” concludes Tara Shirazian, MD, an OB-GYN and the founder of Mommy Matters.

What This Means For You

Breastfeeding and working outside of the home is hard. It’s important to have an environment that’s safe and supportive of your goals to continue to breastfeed your baby. The decision to stop the practice should be up to you, allowing you to do what’s best for you and your family.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Brown CRL, Dodds L, Legge A, Bryanton J, Semenic S. Factors influencing the reasons why mothers stop breastfeeding. Can J Public Health. 2014;105(3):e179-185. doi:10.17269/cjph.105.4244