Returning to work after maternity leave can be stressful since it's often the first time you're away from your precious babe for extended periods. Plus, if you're a breastfeeding mama, navigating how to pump breast milk while adjusting to this new routine often complicates things further.
As a lactation counselor and doula, I help parents navigate both the practical and the emotional side of returning to work—whether that's getting the hang of workplace pumping, adjusting to a new sleep schedule, or perfecting their milk storage method. With a bit of support and planning, you too can feel confident that the transition will be successful for both you and your little one.
These eight tips are a great place to start as you think about pumping as you return to your regular work schedule:
1. Know your breastfeeding and pumping rights.
Employers must provide "reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child's birth each time such employee has a need to express the milk," according to the Department of Labor. Employers must also provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk." You can check for state-by-state breastfeeding laws to see what protections you have.
2. Maintain your milk supply.
Many people find their supply drops soon after going back to work. Why? They simply aren't getting enough breast stimulation. You need to pump about as many times a day as you would typically breastfeed. For most people, this is every two to four hours.
3. Keep your milk fresh.
Store milk in the bottles you pump into or in milk storage bags and seal well. Keep masking tape nearby so you can write your name, date and time you pumped the milk on each container.
According to the CDC, expressed breast milk can stay at room temperature (77°F or lower) for four hours, or four days in the refrigerator, or for six to 12 months in a normal freezer. Place the pumped breast milk directly into the fridge if you plan to use it that night. You can also place it into the freezer and then transfer it to your freezer at home.
If your workplace doesn't have a fridge, you'll need a cooler with ice packs. This will keep your milk fresh for 24 hours. Use a transportable cooler bag with ice packs to get the milk home and then either use, refrigerate or freeze the labeled milk.
Store breast milk in small amounts since you can't re-use any leftover milk once it's been given to your baby. Providing two to four ounces at a time is typically a safe bet.
4. Go back to work gradually, if possible.
Easing into your new routine can make a big difference. You might try working part-time or remotely. If possible, schedule your first day back on a Thursday or Friday, so you have a full weekend to recover from the newness of it all.
There are other ways to ease into a new work schedule too. Can you go to your baby between meetings? Can you condense your meetings, so you're only gone for part of the day? Can your baby be brought to you for a nursing session?
5. Gather your supplies.
Most people who pump find the following items useful:
- A dedicated breast pump for work is ideal, assuming you work at one place. Many people qualify for a free breast pump through insurance. Some may prefer to purchase a second pump for work or ask their workplace to provide a breast pump base and personal parts for you.
- A breast pumping bra will make your breast pump hands-free and easy since it slides right under your bra and fits closely against your body. Keep your clothes on and pump discreetly!
- A manual hand pump is convenient if you are on the go for work.
- Masking tape to write down the time and date of your pumping session.
- Storage containers and ice packs to transport your pumped milk home.
- Boob lube for pumping (like coconut oil)
- Something that smells like your baby to help with milk letdown
- Videos and pics of your baby on your phone.
6. Talk to management.
Before you return to work, set up an appointment to discuss your pumping needs. Ask if there's a lactation room available and learn how to gain access. If there's no room, figure out where you'll pump.
Let them know you'll need privacy and approximately 15 to 20 minutes to pump, plus five to ten minutes to clean up and store the milk. Most people need to pump between two and four times per day. Set the expectations before you return so you don't have to stress about it once you're there.
7. Consider ways to make pumping easier on you.
- Treat pumping time like a meeting by scheduling it in your calendar, so you're not stressed or rushed.
- Take a deep breath, listen to music or think about your baby right before you pump. Smell your baby's blanket or watch a video of your little one. Relaxing and thinking happy thoughts about your baby can help your supply.
- Find your "breast milk spots." Some of us have locations on our breasts that we can press which encourage more milk to come out.
8. Prep about a month before your return date.
This will ensure you have time to build up your breast milk supply, gather the tools you need, and make sure your workplace is ready for you.
While it can feel daunting at first, know that you will get the hang of it. You've got this!