Sadly, working outside the home is an unavoidable reality for many mothers. One of the most difficult periods in a working mama’s career is going back to work after maternity leave. A breastfeeding mama faces the difficult choice of weaning the baby, or pumping milk at work. This guide is intended to help working mamas prepare for the pitfalls and challenges of pumping at work. I hope the tips and tricks below are valuable to you as you return to work!
- Better for baby – breastmilk has continued health benefits long after baby’s first months
- Better for you – breastfeeding (or pumping) has continued health benefits for mama, reducing chances of diabetes and female cancers
- Saves Money – after an upfront investment in bottles and washing equipment, baby’s milk is free
- Breast Pumps are now covered by most insurance plans (more info here)
- Pumping Breaks and an adequate pumping location are now required by law for most workplaces
- Pumping takes time away form work, and can be hard to fit into a busy meeting schedule
- Washing extra bottles and pump parts is even more work
- Regardless of the law, some employers may not be as accommodating as they should be
- There is the potential for many awkward situations with bosses and colleagues when pumping at work
I am a full time working mama. And, like 40% of other homes with working moms, I am the primary breadwinner. Which means, at this point in our life, I only get a few short months to nurse my sweet babies before I must return to work. Because breastfeeding is an “I insist” for me, back to work I go, breast pump in hand.
I’ve been pregnant and/or nursing while working for five years straight now. That time includes more than 20 months of pumping at work, with at least 8 more months to go before I stop pumping for my new little one. Over time, I’ve learned a lot about pumping at work, and I hope that sharing my learnings will be beneficial for other mamas too. I humbly offer my ideas in the hope that it will smooth the bumps in your journey.
Scoping Out the Situation
Before you have your baby, assess the pumping situation at work. Some larger companies have a corporate lactation program – sign up for it! Many companies have designated lactation rooms, or will set one up for you in the health center or an empty office. If you work at a smaller business options may be more limited, so be sure to discuss the situation with your boss before you go out on maternity leave.
By law, companies are required to provide a non-bathroom place and unlimited (but not necessarily paid) pumping breaks. Start the conversation with HR, if you feel uncomfortable talking with your boss about it. Before you leave work, it is important that you know where you will be pumping when you return so you won’t be rushing around looking for a spot on the first morning back.
Picking out a Pump
If you are planning to be pumping at work for your little one, then a double electric pump is the only way to go. “Double electric” means that it pumps milk from both breasts at the same time, and is electronically powered: you won’t have to do the pumping by squeezing a lever over and over and over. Health insurance plans are now required to pay for breast pumps, and some corporate lactation programs also provide them.
I have been using the same Medela Pump in Style Advanced for the last five years and have always been quite happy with it. Another popular double electric pump is the Ameda Purely Yours Ultra Breast Pump. You can read a side by side review of both pumps here.
If you know you are going to go back to work, it is critical that you start your baby on a bottle early. The best time to introduce a bottle is around 3 weeks of age. At this point breastfeeding is becoming established, but baby is still receptive to sucking on a different kind of nipple. If you wait much longer, the baby’s tongue thrust reflex will kick in. In this case, the baby will automatically spit out any foreign object in their mouth, and be physically unable to suck on a bottle until the reflex goes away between 4-6 months.
I usually start out by pumping one side after the newborn has had an unusually long nap, and both breasts are full. Then you can give that bottle to baby later, and pump the skipped feeding immediately after. After baby starts sleeping a longer first stretch at night, I do a second pump to begin building my freezer stash.
It’s important to give the baby a bottle of breastmilk every single day. Your baby may go through a period where he resists the bottle, and complains very loudly about it. You must insist. This is quite difficult, but it is even more difficult to return to work and leave behind a baby who will not (or cannot) take a bottle. I had one who did not take a bottle for the first month after I returned to work. That was one of the most stressful months of my life.
You must do everything you can to ensure baby willingly takes a bottle. Again, start early and give them a bottle every single day. Do not slack off: even one missed day is long enough for a new baby to forget how to suck on a fake nipple.
Building a Freezer Stash
You will want to start building a freezer stash of milk before you go back to work. You will need at least enough to feed baby for one day while you are away, and it’s a good idea to have several days worth of milk in reserve. You never know when you might be unexpectedly called away on business, have to work late, when there might be a mishap with your milk (bottle spill, or fridge failure), or you simply forget to bring your cooler home. (Here’s a nifty tool to calculate how much expressed milk your baby will need each day).
I have always pumped as much as I can, just to ensure my baby has milk even in a worst case scenario (God forbid I end up in the hospital or worse). I currently have almost 400 oz of milk stashed away in our chest freezer. As the milk gets close to it’s freezer expiration date, I typically donate it to a baby in need.
I freeze the milk in 4 fl oz units, because we use 4 fl oz bottles. This makes it easy to thaw the right amount, with no waste. The best bags I’ve found for freezing milk are the Lansinoh Breastmilk Storage Bags. They are super thick, have a separate tab for writing milk info on, and have an easy pour spout. Be sure to freeze the bags flat for best use of freezer space. A flat frozen bag also fits perfectly into a bread pan of hot water for easy thawing. Medela also makes Pump & Save Breastmilk Bags which attach directly to your breast pump to save time and extra steps.
Planning to Return
Before you go back to work, you will need to make sure you have enough pump parts, and bottles to cover you for as long as you’ll be away. Some moms wash bottles every single night, and only need enough to last for that day. I hate, hate, hate washing bottles, so I have collected enough parts so I only have to wash bottles twice a week.
At the very least, ensure you have a spare set of pump parts. If your dog chews one up, or a part fails at work, you won’t have time to run all over town looking for a replacement before it’s time to pump again. If you want to be super smart, keep this spare set at work, or always in your pump bag. There was a day I forgot my valve parts, and I had a very miserable afternoon when I was unable to pump. (And hand expressing over the bathroom sink only gives a small amount of relief. Ugh.) If I had kept my spare parts at work, that would not have happened.
Always prepare bottles in the evening for the next day. Don’t wait to do it in the morning, because you will already be stressed and rushed. My babies have always needed between 12 and 16 fl oz of milk while I’m away, so I prepare four 4 fl oz bottles. It is important that your caregiver knows that baby does not have to finish the bottle. Breastfed babies are used to only drinking what they need, and should not be encouraged or forced to finish the bottle.
Packing Your Pump Bag
Always pack up your pump bag the night before as well so you don’t have to worry about it the next morning. Your bag should include the following items:
- the pump
- all pump parts (and extra pump parts)
- bottles or bags to collect the milk
- lids for the bottles
- a cooler to store the bottles
- ice packs if you do not have refrigeration available, or if you have a long commute home
- a hand towel to place on your lap while you pump, and to hold the milky pump parts prior to washing
Pumping at Work
When you first return to work, you want to ensure that you are pumping as often as your baby has been nursing. This is generally every 2-3 hours depending on how young your baby it. I’ve always gone back to work when my babes were about 4 months old, and nursing roughly every three hours. Because of this I plan to pump at 9:00, 12:00, and 3:00. (I work a typical 8:00 – 5:00 day). You will have to adjust your schedule to whatever works best for your particular work schedule and environment, but do your best to keep it consistent, and as often as baby nurses.
When it’s time to pump, lock yourself in the designated room, and get everything set up. Having a flat surface like a table or desk is very helpful for getting all your gear in order. Remember to put a towel on your lap to catch the drips, and dry yourself off after pumping. This towel can also be used to conceal the milky pump parts from curious eyes when you go to wash them.
I always have a magazine or book to read while I pump. I find that the more relaxed I am, the more milk I get, and the faster it flows. It’s nice to take a little break during the day to calm myself from the stress of the workplace. If you are a multi-tasker and want to continue working, I’ve heard great things about this Simple Wishes Hands-Free Breastpump Bra.
After you are done pumping, you will need to clean your pump parts and store your milk. I’ve found that simply rinsing the parts in hot water is enough – it is not actually necessary to wash the flanges and valves between every pumping during the day (source here and here). Washing once each day at home with HOT, soapy water, and allowing to air dry is enough to keep your pump parts clean.
Pumping + breastmilk + work colleagues can add up to some pretty awkward situations and conversations. Be prepared for this and be ready to hold your head high and stay calm when it happens. I find it best to answer questions in a matter-of-fact way, and then change the subject or leave immediately. In most cases, people won’t bother you again, and will likely avoid the topic entirely.
Some personal examples:
- The time I quietly slipped into a team meeting a few minutes late and my boss blurts out in front of everyone, “You’re done pumping ALREADY?!” Uncomfortable.
- The time a young male colleague asked me what was in my little black cooler (“Milk”), and then why do I bring milk to work (“actually, I’m taking it home…”), then got totally confused because he thought babies only ate Gerber, and I had to practically explain breastfeeding to him. Squirm.
- The time I was in a different building for the day and borrowed a colleague’s mini-fridge to store my milk. Her boss found out and made all kinds of inappropriate remarks about making sure I don’t mix it up with the coffee creamer, etc… Ugh.
Other Things You Should Know
- Pumps suck a lot harder than babies to get the same amount of milk. The first week back at work, your nipples will be sore from all the pumping. It will go away after a week or two. You can try to build up to this by pumping and bottle feeding during the days of your last week at home. This will be good to help baby get used to the new routine too.
- Often breastfed babies of working moms will start to “reverse cycle“ when their mama goes back to work. This means they will drink only enough milk to survive the day, and then make up for it when mama returns. Night waking will increase, and feedings will become longer. Two of my three have done this. We were back to nursing every two hours through the night for a long time after I went back to work. This is normal, but also very hard. This link has some tips for how to manage the sleep deprivation that comes with reverse cycling.
- It’s a good idea to pump as much as you possibly can (pump until dry) with each pumping session to ensure your supply doesn’t dip. Any extra milk can be frozen for later, or donated to a hungry baby.
All the Best to you as you do YOUR best to continue providing sweet milk for your baby. Please feel free to leave any questions or comments below!