For many working women, ending maternity leave (if they get it) and leaving a new baby to go back to work is one of the hardest days of their working life (I would recommend waterproof eye makeup). This one day combines guilt, anxiety, sadness, exhaustion, and stress – all while trying to prove that we’re “back.”

Making it harder? For those of us who choose to (or attempt to) continue breastfeeding our babies while working, we have a third job: making milk for the baby during the work day. Planning for the time, space, awkwardness, and physical and mental effort of hooking up to a machine several times a day can be completely, paralyzingly daunting.

The survival strategies for working and pumping – and the hilarious and surreal stories of real working women – could fill a book. In fact, they are; I’m writing one. I’ve learned that preparation is half the battle….and I’ll cover the basics of the other half — you know, the actual pumping at work — later this month. But in the meantime, there are some steps you can take during maternity leave that will make your first day back at work — with your breast pump in tow — easier.

1. Establish your milk supply early. Every breastfeeding book under the sun can tell you how to do this, but it is especially important for back-to-work moms. I can’t promise that you will be able to maintain perfect supply while working; some women do, and some simply can’t. But getting a great milk supply in place weeks before you go back to work will give you the best head start possible.

2. Get to know your pump through “Pumping School.” Unless you had to pump in the hospital, you might find yourself wondering who the hell is going to show you how to use this thing. And while a Lactation Consultant can show you, I highly recommend inviting over an experienced friend for a glass of wine and what I like to call “Pumping School.”

Do this while your baby is still little – between weeks 3 and 5. Have at the ready: your pump and all of its parts, breast milk storage bags, and a Sharpie. And that wine you promised. Your friend will wait until you’ve fed your baby (the baby will inevitably screw up the feeding schedule on this day), then set you up with the pump for the first time, hook you up to it, and help you have a totally surreal and pretty uncomfortable experience that will take the mystery out of this bizarre machine.

By the way: I am not a doctor, but many experts say a single drink is fine while breastfeeding, and after my best friend put me through Pumping School, I had a well-deserved glass of red wine. Oh, and it might have been 8 in the morning.

3. Introduce the bottle to your baby. This step seems to strike fear into a lot of new mothers’ hearts. There is a lot out there about “nipple confusion,” but when you’re going back to work, you really don’t have much of a choice about whether to give your baby a bottle. Many experts suggest introducing the bottle between 4 and 6 weeks of age. Have someone else give the bottle, and don’t get discouraged – it takes some babies several tries, over several days, to really get it.

4. Build up your freezer milk stash. Having a freezer full of breast milk is an amazing stress reliever as you head back into the working world. I used to tiptoe into the kitchen at night, open my freezer, and stare at my stored milk. I’m not saying this was a healthy behavior, but having several days’ worth of milk in the freezer removes one worry from your mind.

To get started on this stash, try pumping immediately after feeding the baby in the morning, when your milk supply is higher. This will also give your body time to replenish before the next feeding. You might not get much the first time, but you will probably see a jump after a few days. You can also pump in the late evening if you are lucky (and/or disciplined) enough to have a baby who is sleeping through the night.

(Please, please take note: you do not have to do this additional pumping every single day. Some days you will be tired. Some days your baby will need you, or you’ll just plain not feel like it. Give yourself a break.)

5. Go clothes shopping. Bad news: Official nursing “fashion” can be worse than maternity clothes. Good news: you can make a lot of regular clothes work as nursing clothes…and pumping clothes. By and large, if you can nurse a baby in it, you can pump in it. So get out there and get a few staples to get you through the first couple of weeks.

6. Do a dry run. Give yourself an at-home dress rehearsal of what you expect a typical pumping session at work to look like. You will less stressed if you’ve done the whole routine once through. Get help with the baby, who will need a bottle while you practice. Dress in work clothes. Set up a space that is as much like what you will have at work as possible, including whether or not the door locks, and availability (or not) of a table or other surface area to set your pump and your milk bottles. Try to pump without your baby in the room, so you can work on achieving letdown without your baby there.

Do whatever you think you’ll have to do at work: hold the door handle, share desk space with a laptop, work on emails while you pump. Then practice packing everything up and walking across the house to your kitchen sink and fridge. This will help you realize what you need to do before you emerge from privacy. Get the milk into the fridge. Look at what you have the milk stored in and ask yourself if you’re comfortable with Tim from Accounts Payable seeing it. At the sink, give the parts a quick wash and put them back in whatever you’ll use to take back to your desk.

If you expect to pump in the car, go do it: pump in the garage, the driveway, or driving around your neighborhood. As much as this sucks (literally?), it will take so much of the mystery out of the process.

Now that you’re prepped, enjoy the next few weeks with your babe. And tune in later this month for more info every pumping, working mom must know — knowing your rights, finding your comfort zone, and gaining the support you need to keep feeding your baby the way you want to. To be continued…

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