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Get pumped: How one entrepreneur is making breast pumping better for moms

Motherly @ Work features the stories and insights of modern women growing their careers—and their families.


Sarah Wells is one of those women.

She’s mother, wife, and Founder + CEO of Sarah Wells Bags—gorgeous, high quality, and functional breast pump bags for all your pumping wants and needs. From creating innovative products like the wet/dry Pumparoo bags for your breast pump parts to designing a uniform compliant bag for military mamas (with a special military mamas discount!)—Sarah and her team are on a mission to keep you looking fresh and fabulous.

So how does she create beautiful bag after bag while also devoting time to creating a family? We caught up with Sarah to find out her secrets to running a thriving business and a happy family.

Your bags are functional and fashionable—and so.much.better than the bags that come with breast pumps. Why did you want to create your line of bags?

Sarah Wells: When I went back to work as Executive Director of a national nonprofit organization after the birth of my first child, Maddy, I was frustrated carrying an unattractive bag that came with my pump, which also lacked the functionality a pumping mom needs (like insulated pockets and more space for all your stuff), and I hated carrying multiple bags—a purse, pump bag, and laptop bag. Many other baby products had a fashion makeover ages ago, like diaper bags, but pump bags were stuck in big rut!

What was the need in the market?

Sarah Wells: My timing could not have been better. Right around the time I began exploring my business idea, the Affordable Care Act (Health Reform) passed and many moms were given insurance coverage of their breast pumps. This is an amazing opportunity for new moms. However, because of caps on what insurance is willing to pay for, moms who used to get a bag with their pump (albeit the ugly bag), suddenly were getting a pump without a tote. I think moms always wanted a better alternative; and Health Reform created an even greater demand for the product.

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Why is it important for you to work toward ensuring mothers feel good about their pumping experience?

Sarah Wells: Pumping is an incredible gift you give your (or another!) child. However, it comes at a crazy time for most moms. You are exhausted, physically recovering, overwhelmed, in a complete life-changing, Twilight Zone mental space.

Moms need every ounce of support they can get post-partum.

I consider it my honor to provide moms with a bit of fashion and function that makes them feel peppy and achieve their pumping goals.

What are your big hopes and dreams for Sarah Wells bags?

Sarah Wells: I’m living the dream! Truly, I mean that. I’ve built a company based on support, quality, and excellent customer service. I’m extremely proud of my accomplishments and humbled every day by the amazing testimonials moms send me about their bags. Where do I go next? There are women becoming pumping moms every day; I just want to keep reaching these women and improve on every aspect of my business.

What inspires you to do this work?

Sarah Wells: Absolutely the moms I interact with. I aim to support pumping moms in every way I can, but they give back to me too. I’m a pumping mom myself at the moment and I learn from my customers all the time. And they are always cheering me on with the business.

There is so much talk about judgmental parenting and catty moms—that exists—but honestly, the vast majority of moms I encounter are truly supportive and nothing short of amazing.

Tell us about your career to this point—how did you get here?

Sarah Wells: I’ve always had a passion for advocacy, especially for women and girls. My mom was mayor of our town growing up and head of a nonprofit organization (an incredible role model) and this set me on a path toward Washington, DC (I thought my destiny was politics—ha!). I majored in Women’s Studies and Public Policy in college and graduate school and I worked in two nonprofit organizations related to women and health care. When I became a mom myself, to two little girls, my passion for issues important to women and girls became almost overwhelming.

I had no idea in the early days that my journey would lead here, but it makes a lot of sense now.

I’ve always been entrepreneurial and have a passion for women’s issues. My business combines it all.

What are your secrets for integrating work and family?

Sarah Wells: Running a business is a 7-day-per-week job and 365-days-a-year (I have to work on Thanksgiving, Christmas, etc. like people in retail.) However, it’s not a traditional schedule. So the good news for work/life balance is that I can take off at 2pm to join my daughters at the park or start work later in the morning to do camp drop-off. It’s taken me a couple of years to adjust to this new routine, but I really like it.

Flexible does not equal less time on the job (realistically, I work more hours now than I ever have.) But flexibility does allow me to participate in more family activities. I know not everyone can or wants to have their own business. But I often encourage my friends or family to look for flexible employment (e.g., non-traditional hours, partial or full telecommuting) if they are struggling with the balance. I know I’m lucky.

You’re a busy woman—how do you recharge?

Sarah Wells: I wish I could say, “a great stimulating book” or “exercise” but honestly, it’s the couch, a glass of wine and Game of Thrones. That’s the real me!

(Sounds heavenly to us!?)

Do you have a mentor or someone you look up to that’s helped to shape you as a woman and a mother? Tell us how they inspire you.

Sarah Wells: I have both! I’ll start with my mom, who I mentioned earlier (mayor of our town.) I could fill a book with all the ways she is amazing. Incredible mother, master gardener, world class chef, community organizer, savvy professional, etc. Nature and nurture—she’s given me an incredible foundation to build my dreams.

I also have a professional mentor, Nancy Strojny, whom I have worked with for years now. This is one of my top recommendations for other people starting a business. Nancy works with SCORE.org, and they will match you to a free, confidential business expert who can help you immensely. Nancy is one of the sharpest business women I’ve met and is “all in” for my success.

Tell us about your children. How have they transformed your career?

Sarah Wells: Perhaps in my case, my firstborn transformed my professional path a bit more than average, as pumping for Maddy inspired the entire idea behind my breast pump bag business. Aside from that, my kids have helped me sharpen my professional goals because any time away from them has to be really worth it. They have made me a better person in every way.

What gets you out of bed in the morning and keeps you inspired and excited about life?

Sarah Wells: First and foremost, my family, Greg, Maddy and Abby. They literally jump on me at 6:30 am! But also, I get up every day and do my best for them because I love them so deeply. I also have developed an intense drive for my work over the years. I wake up itching to get to my desk and compete with myself from the day prior. Can I top myself today? Be more creative, a better human, a savvier businesswoman?

Tell us about a typical day in your life.


At 6: 30 am. . . Abby (11 months) babbles on the video monitor wanting to nurse, Maddy (5 years old) jumps up and comes looking for me. The whole family is up and moving for the day. Most days I don’t get a shower in the morning, which bothers me, but I’m constantly making sacrifices to keep up with motherhood and professional demands. (And I work from home, most of the time virtually with my customers and vendors, so they don’t see me unshowered!)

At 7:45 am. . .Childcare handoff, I grab something fast to eat and my 100% required second cup of coffee.

At 10:00 am. . . I’ve gone through most of the customer service messages from the overnight (my customers send emails VERY late at night because they are often up in the wee hours breastfeeding!). My customers will tell you I’m normally VERY fast at responding. This is a top priority and something I want to be known for.

At 1:00 pm. . . Pumping on my Spectra S1 pump which is bedazzled with gems by the company and makes me smile literally every time I use it (see, just little things like that make a difference in a pumping moms day…) Shoveling some sort of food. Drinking lots of water.

At 3:00 pm. . . Working on marketing materials, talking to my manufacturer, mentoring meeting, scanning the internet for color or pattern ideas for the next bag, talking with moms on social media.

At 5:00 pm. . . Pumping again! And then knocking off for the “daytime” and hanging with my kiddos. We just moved and have the most amazing neighborhood to explore, so we have been going on a lot of evening walks. Then dinner, bath, books, bed for the kids. Then I come back down, clean up and start dinner for the adults. This is the hardest part of the day for me. Exhausted from a full day of work, plus pumping, evening is almost like another full day of child entertainment, the bedtime routine and making sure grownups have a healthy dinner. Whew.

At 9:00 pm. . . Check in on email. Instagram posts for business. Finally…a shower!

What’s one thing you do every day (or try to do every day!) to ensure that your work and home lives run more smoothly?

Sarah Wells: Make sure the downstairs (living room, kitchen, etc) of the house is fairly clean before bed. I do not mean vacuumed, scrubbed, etc. I mean, most of the big toys put away and dishes running. We are not perfect on this, but it’s more restful to go to bed with it done and to wake up to a fresh start.

We’d love to hear—what would you tell other mamas who have a great idea and want to start their own business?

Sarah Wells: Ask people what they think of your idea. But not just your family and friends, try to find a group of people that are not biased who will tell you if they would BUY your product or service (there is a difference between liking the idea and being willing to spend money on it.)

And get a professional mentor!

What do you hope your children learn from your career?

Sarah Wells: Be open to the idea that what you start out doing in your career is just part of the journey and you may end up elsewhere. Try a lot of different experiences so you can weed out what you like and don’t like (and start that early, like internships in high school). Once you figure out your strengths and your passions, you can craft a successful path of your choice.

What’s in your bag?

Sarah Wells: I’m actually a purse “stuff” minimalist (I like to keep things clean!). In the main compartment: wallet, keys, phone, basic extras like lip gloss, spare pare of contact lenses. In the side pocket, all my diaper bag items. I leave the other side pocket empty for when I need to carry my breast pump and accessories!

Right now I’m carrying a prototype of a new bag I’m launching this holiday season, I think it’s my best yet. Not quite ready to share a photo, but stay tuned…

You launched a limited edition military Kelly bag in July. Why was it important to you to recognize military mamas?

Sarah Wells: Women have played an important role in our military for a while now, and recently through changes in the law, they are realizing their full potential and opportunity there. I knew this as a women’s rights advocate. But I had NO idea prior to my business venture that these women often carry on their breastfeeding journey in some seriously tricky circumstances!

Not only do some moms nurse and pump around people who lack education (or respect) in breastfeeding, they are pumping while flying military aircraft, pumping in a Humvee with their rifle on their lap, in the desert, on base, on the floor of a bathroom, shipping their milk, dumping their milk and more.

I think these pumping moms epitomize what we think of when we think “soldier”—discipline and commitment. I’m humbled by it sitting here in my cushy home office when I pump and I’m so thankful for what they do. A uniform-compliant breast pump bag was the least I could do to say thanks.

What does ‘Motherly’ mean to you?

Sarah Wells: To act with kindness and love and commitment in all that you do.

(Nailed it.?)


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Unstructured play is play without predetermined rules of the game. There are no organized teams, uniforms, coaches or trainers. It is spontaneous, often made-up on the spot, and changeable as the day goes on. It is the kind of play you see when puppies chase each other around a yard in endless circles or a group of kids play for hours in a fort they created out of old packing boxes.

Unstructured play is fun—no question about it—but research also tells us that it is critically important for the development of children's bodies and brains.

One of the best ways to encourage unstructured play in young children is by providing open-ended toys, or toys that can be used multiple ways. People Toy Company knows all about that. Since 1977, they've created toys and products designed to naturally encourage developmental milestones—but to kids, it all just feels like play.

Here are five reasons why unstructured play is crucial for your children—

1. It changes brain structure in important ways

In a recent interview on NPR's Morning Edition, Sergio Pellis, Ph.D., an expert on the neuroscience of play noted that play actually changes the structure of the developing brain in important ways, strengthening the connections of the neurons (nerve cells) in the prefrontal cortex, the area of the brain considered to be the executive control center responsible for solving problems, making plans and regulating emotions.

Because unstructured play involves trying out different strategies without particular goals or serious consequences, children and other animals get to practice different activities during play and see what happens. When Dr. Pellis compared rats who played as pups with rats that did not, he found that although the play-deprived rats could perform the same actions, the play-experienced rats were able to react to their circumstances in a more flexible, fluid and swift fashion.

Their brains seemed more "plastic" and better able to rewire as they encountered new experiences.

Hod Lipson, a computer scientist at Cornell sums it up by saying the gift of play is that it teaches us how to deal with the unexpected—a critically important skill in today's uncertain world.

2. Play activates the entire neocortex

We now know that gene expression (whether a gene is active or not) is affected by many different things in our lives, including our environment and the activities we participate in. Jaak Panksepp, Ph.D., a Professor at the University of Washington studied play in rats earning him the nickname of the "rat tickler."

He found that even a half hour of play affected the activity of many different genes and activated the outer part of the rats' brains known as the neocortex, the area of the brain used in higher functions such as thinking, language and spatial reasoning. We don't know for sure that this happens in humans, but some researchers believe that it probably does.

3. It teaches children to have positive interaction with others

It used to be thought that animal play was simply practice so that they could become more effective hunters. However, Dr. Panksepp's study of play in rats led him to the conclusion that play served an entirely different function: teaching young animals how to interact with others in positive ways. He believed that play helps build pro-social brains.

4. Children who play are often better students

The social skills acquired through play may help children become better students. Research has found that the best predictor of academic performance in the eighth grade was a child's social skills in the third grade. Dr. Pellis notes that "countries where they actually have more recess tend to have higher academic performance than countries where recess is less."

5. Unstructured play gets kids moving

We all worry that our kids are getting too little physical activity as they spend large chunks of their time glued to their electronic devices with only their thumbs getting any exercise. Unstructured play, whether running around in the yard, climbing trees or playing on commercial play structures in schools or public parks, means moving the whole body around.

Physical activity helps children maintain a healthy weight and combats the development of Type 2 diabetes—a condition all too common in American children—by increasing the body's sensitivity to the hormone insulin.

It is tempting in today's busy world for parents and kids to fill every minute of their day with structured activities—ranging from Spanish classes before school to soccer and basketball practice after and a full range of special classes and camps on the weekends and summer vacation. We don't remember to carve out time for unstructured play, time for kids to get together with absolutely nothing planned and no particular goals in mind except having fun.

The growing body of research on the benefits of unstructured play suggests that perhaps we should rethink our priorities.

Not sure where to get started? Here are four People Toy Company products that encourage hours of unstructured play.

1. People Blocks Zoo Animals

These colorful, magnetic building blocks are perfect for encouraging unstructured play in children one year and beyond. The small pieces fit easily in the hands of smaller children, and older children will love creating their own shapes and designs with the magnetic pieces.

People Blocks Zoo Animals 17 Piece Set, People Toy Company, $34.99

BUY


This article was sponsored by People Toy Company. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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As any parent knows, newborns need to eat a lot to keep fuel in those tiny tummies. For breastfeeding mamas, that can translate to nursing sessions anywhere, any time of day—which can make it feel like a full-time job. So, what's a mama to do when she has other things on her to-do list?

Let's take a look at some celebrity mothers who are showing the world that mamas have legendary multitasking skills. 👊

Jessie James Decker is a backseat breastfeeder

By the time her third child was born, Jessie James Decker had a few tricks up her sleeve when it came to breastfeeding on the go—including how to get situated in the backseat of the car to nurse her son while he was strapped into the car seat.

Decker doesn't recommend mamas go without a seatbelt like she did, but sometimes, a bad day out with the baby calls for extreme measures. When little Forrest couldn't stop crying on the way home from his mama's photo shoot, his mama did what she had to do.

"I hopped in the back seat with Forrest and fed him with boob out leaned awkwardly over the car seat to calm him down," Decker says. "On the way home I cried, I got stressed and anxiety, and I was just a mom trying to do my best just like we all are no matter the situation."

Pink takes a hike

When son Jameson was a baby, Pink proved that breastfeeding didn't have to mean sitting at home in a glider. With some assistance from a baby carrier and a perfect position for Jameson, the multitasking mama was able to go about her hike like it was no big deal.

Gisele Bündchen 'grammed her breastfeeding glam session

In 2013, the super model proved she's also a super mama by multitasking a full-on beauty session while breastfeeding. Recognizing what a team effort it was, Bündchen captioned the post, "What would I do without this beauty squad after the 15 hours of flying and only three hours of sleep."

Tess Holliday was inspired by her fellow supermodel mama 

Tess Holliday followed in Gisele's footsteps after her youngest was born, posting this photo to Instagram. It that proves that breastfeeding mamas can not only multitask, but also don't have to conform to certain body ideals to look amazing postpartum. Any size, any shape, any time, anywhere—breastfeeding mothers like Holliday are normalizing breastfeeding and our bodies.

Padma Lakshmi proves you don't need a team

Without a beauty squad on call, Lakshmi took her multitasking to "level 💯" by using a nursing pillow to free up her two hands. It takes a brave woman to attempt mascara while breastfeeding, but the Top Chef host clearly pulls it off.

Whether a mama is trying to feed her baby on the go or while she's getting glam, it isn't always easy. Motherhood is about trying to do your best even when it feels like 100 things are going on at the same time—and yet we manage, like the super mamas we are.

[Update, September 23: This post was originally published June 12, 2018. It has been updated to include Tess Holliday's Instagram post]

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In the moments after we give birth, we desperately want to hear our baby cry. In the middle of the night a few months later it's no longer exactly music to our ears, but those cries aren't just telling us that baby needs a night feeding: They're also giving us a hint at what our children may sound like as kindergarteners, and adults.

New research published in the journal Biology Letters suggests the pitch of a 4-month-old's cry predicts the pitch they'll use to ask for more cookies at age five and maybe even later on as adults.

The study saw 2 to 5-month olds recorded while crying. Five years later, the researchers hit record again and chatted with the now speaking children. Their findings, combined with previous work on the subject, suggest it's possible to figure out what a baby's voice will sound like later in life, and that the pitch of our adult voices may be traceable back to the time we spend in utero. Further studies are needed, but scientists are very interested in how factors before birth can impact decades later.

"In utero, you have a lot of different things that can alter and impact your life — not only as a baby, but also at an adult stage," one of the authors of the study, Nicolas Mathevon, told the New York Times.

The New York Times also spoke with Carolyn Hodges, an assistant professor of anthropology at Boston University who was not involved in the study. According to Hodges, while voice pitch may not seem like a big deal, it impacts how we perceive people in very real ways.

Voice pitch is a factor in how attractive we think people are, how trustworthy. But why we find certain pitches more or less appealing isn't known. "There aren't many studies that address these questions, so that makes this research especially intriguing," Hodges said, adding that it "suggests that individual differences in voice pitch may have their origins very, very early in development."

So the pitch of that midnight cry may have been determined months ago, and it may determine part of your child's future, too. There are still so many things we don't know, but as parents we do know one thing: Our babies cries (as much as we don't want to hear them all the time) really are something special.

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So many parents wish there was a way we could add more hours to the day. Unfortunately, we're stuck with just 24 of them, but we can try to make the most of the time we've got. One way more and more working mamas are maximizing the time we do have is by cutting out the commute and working from home.

It can add an hour or two back to your day, and (depending on your hours and circumstances) it can even make childcare arrangements easier. And with more big companies offering legit remote opportunities, it's easier than ever for parents to find these opportunities. As Motherly recently reported, Amazon is on a bit of a remote hiring spree ahead of the holiday season, and it's not the only one.

Williams-Sonoma is currently seeking Seasonal Customer Service Associates to work from home. It is looking for remote workers in Cincinnati, Cleveland, Phoenix, Reno, Tulsa, and near Raleigh, Columbus, Braselton, and Oklahoma City.

These work-from-home positions are part of Williams-Sonoma's plan to hire about 3,500 associates for its Customer Care Centers. The company says a "significant portion of positions" for the Customer Care Centers will be work-from-home. They're looking for remote workers who live no more than an hour and a half away from one of the Customer Care Centers as "on occasion our Work From Home associates must come to the Care Center for meetings and training with advanced notice," the company notes in the job postings.


The positions are very similar to what Amazon is looking for: Basically customer service reps who can take inbound calls to help shoppers with orders, returns and issues with finding products or deliveries of products. Williams-Sonoma is looking for people who can work 30 - 50 hours per week, and the pay is listed at $12 per hour.

Another perk is a 40% discount on most merchandise, which great because the Williams-Sonoma umbrella includes brands like Pottery Barn and West Elm as well.

Sounds like this could be a great gig for a mama with customer service skills and a high-speed internet connection.

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Plenty of modern motherhood paraphernalia was made to be seen—think breastfeeding pillows that seamlessly blend into living room decor or diaper bags that look like stylish purses. The breast pump though, usually isn't on that list.

It's traditionally been used in the privacy of our homes and hotel rooms in the best case scenarios, and in storage closets and restrooms in the worst circumstances. For a product that is very often used by mothers because they need to be in public spaces (like work and school), the breast pump lives a very private life.

Thankfully, some high profile moms are changing that by posting their pump pics on Instagram. These influential mamas aren't gonna hide while they pump, and may change the way the world (and product designers) see this necessary accessory.

1. Gail Simmons 

Top Chef's Gail Simmons looked amazing on the red carpet at the 2018 Emmys, but a few days after the award show the cookbook author, television host and new mama gave the world a sneak peek into her backstage experience. It wasn't all glam for Gail, who brought her pump and hands-free bra along on the big night.

We're thankful to these women for showing that breast pumps belong in public and in our Instagram feeds.

[Update, September 21, 2018: This post was originally published on May 31, 2018, but has been updated to include a recent Instagram post by Gail Simmons.]

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  3. Nicole Phelps pumping in an evening gown is the ultimate definition of a multi-tasking mama 👏
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