This story has been updated with comments from the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee.
Laura King was clear about one thing during her pregnancy: She was going to keep cycling.
King says her world revolves around gravel cycling, a type of off-road cycling that has increased in popularity in recent years. Both she and her husband are competitive cyclists — her husband has ridden in the Tour de France. Exercise and athletics have been an integral part of who she is her whole life.
Like many top athletes, King likes to push her limits, to live “in the gray area of what was potentially too much.” But as she juggled the postpartum period and some serious cycling, King was surprised by how much anxiety she felt around breastfeeding.
She would rush out the door, “pumping at the very last second” before going on a four-hour ride. She would rush back, grateful that she didn’t have a flat tire or accident, peel off her sweaty cycling gear, and immediately feed her baby.
On longer rides, she would pump while riding her bike.
“You’re constantly thinking and doing the math about when your baby needs to be fed next.”
When she heard that the International Olympic Committee had barred family from accompanying athletes, including children who were still nursing, King was dumbfounded.
“It was awful and ludicrous,” King said. “I just think about how much added anxiety that would be.”
In late June, the IOC reversed its earlier decision and permitted athletes who breastfeed to bring their children with them, following an outcry from several top mom-athletes, including Canadian basketball player Kim Gaucher.
“After careful consideration of the unique situation facing athletes with nursing children, we are pleased to confirm that, when necessary, nursing children will be able to accompany athletes to Japan,” organizers told Reuters on June 30.
“Given that the Tokyo 2020 Games will take place during a pandemic, overall we must unfortunately decline to permit athletes’ family members or other companions to accompany them to the Games.”
In a June 23 Instagram post, Gaucher pleaded with the IOC to let her bring her four-month-old with her to Japan.
“All I’ve ever wanted out of my basketball career is to rep Canada at the Olympics,” said Gaucher, who was breastfeeding her daughter, Sophie, during the viral Instagram video. “Right now, I’m being forced to decide between being a breastfeeding mom or an Olympic athlete. I can’t have them both.”
But even after the IOC announced the rule change, athletes such as U.S. soccer team star Alex Morgan have criticized the governing body for a lack of clarity over the rules.
“Still not sure what ‘when necessary’ even means. Is that determined by the mother or the IOC?” Morgan wrote on Twitter.
A spokesperson for the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee said National Organizing Committees are responsible for ensuring athletes who bring their children are nursing.
Organizers said children who are nursing can’t stay in the Olympic Village, which includes a residential zone, because it is restricted for everyone aside from athletes and team officials. Instead, they will stay in approved hotels outside the Olympic hub. Athletes will be paired with a caregiver who can provide help throughout their stay.
A spokesperson for the IOC wasn’t able to provide more information about how the restrictions might be enforced.
“It is great to see so many mothers compete at the highest level, including at the Olympic Games,” the IOC said in an email. “It is important to note that entry into Japan is the responsibility of the Japanese government.”
King was particularly confounded by the rule barring nursing children from being inside the Olympic Village, especially without a clear indication of who would be caring for the child during practices or competition.
“The mental and physical and emotional energy that all of that would require is exactly the opposite of what is going to lead to a top performance,” she said. “I would be defeated before even making my way to Japan.”
Sarah Axelson, an executive at the Women’s Sports Foundation, an advocacy group, said moms competing and coaching at elite levels is still a relatively new phenomenon.
“Previously, it was that women would have their competitive careers, and then when it was time to have a family, they would leave competition,” she said. “Now, they realize they don’t have to leave competition to be a mother.”
That means sports leagues and governing bodies have to start accommodating for the needs of athletes who are parents in ways they didn’t before. The results have been mixed at best, she said.
During the pandemic, the WNBA and National Women’s Soccer League made important accommodations for players: courtside strollers for children at practice, the ability to live in hotels with their mothers’ teams, paid caregivers and coronavirus testing protocols specifically for young children.
But that is still not the norm for many leagues — or many workplaces, for that matter.
Carrie Dean, a lactation consultant, said there is “quite a disparity” around breastfeeding parents having their needs met, especially at work.
“Breastfeeding is a very intricate feedback loop,” she explained. “We have to have the mom in good health, the baby in good health, and it’s like two puzzle pieces that you’re trying to fit together.
“If there’s something that’s just a little off with the mom or a little off with the baby, things can go haywire very quickly.”
For example, if a baby has a bad feeding session, or if a mom gets off her pumping schedule, milk can get stuck in the breast. If milk isn’t removed properly, it could lead to mastitis, also known as “the boob flu.”
“It makes you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck,” she said. “You get a fever, you get chills.”
Parents who breastfeed often need equipment such as pumps and to stick to a regular feeding schedule to avoid complications. They need a refrigerator or dry ice to store their breast milk, and a private, clean room so they can pump comfortably.
The calculus of breastfeeding can get more complicated for athletes. Timing is key, and some doctors recommend moms who are athletes take pumping breaks during long workouts. They also have to hydrate constantly and be mindful of nutrition: A parent needs between 400 to 600 extra calories per day to successfully support breastfeeding.
“Making breast milk requires a lot of energy,” Dean said, “and you need that extra time.”
Even if a parent opts not to breastfeed, being away from a baby can be traumatic for both the parent and the child, Dean said. This stress can be very disruptive to hormones — impacting their athletic performance and their ability to produce breast milk.
The separation is also stressful for the infant, Dean added — babies still need to be cuddled and have skin-to-skin contact.
The amount of time a parent can breastfeed varies widely. The World Health Organization recommends parents breastfeed exclusively until the infant is six months old and continue breastfeeding, alongside “safe and adequate” food, “for up to 2 years and beyond.”
Dean said she believes that children up to a year old should be allowed to the Tokyo Games with their parents “without question.”
Dean, who worked as a massage therapist for the U.S. Tennis Association, knows well the concessions organizers make for athletes. She said she thinks sports leagues and governing bodies have a long way to go to better accommodate postpartum athletes.
“We should be honored that we get to watch other humans do this,” Dean said.
King, the cyclist, would like to see organizers center the needs of parents more. When she and her husband travel to compete in races, “the logistics of it all are monumental.”
On top of figuring out accommodations and how to pack their gear, they often try to contact the race director for recommendations on babysitters. She wants organizers to do more to check in on what competitors need, such as providing child care or permitting athletes to bring someone who can help care for the child.
But King is hopeful.
“There is something really exciting about progress in this area and women being able to say, ‘Maybe this is how it was 20 years ago, but we’re actually capable of this,’” she said.
“I was amazed at what I was able to do, in a short period of time, after growing a human.”