A few months ago, a friend who was expecting her second little one asked me to write a post on how to keep breastfeeding when you’re returning to work after maternity leave.
I don’t talk about breastfeeding much here because:
- Nursing can be a challenge, especially at the beginning. It works out for some mamas and babies—and not for others. No need to add more stress to your life if your baby is getting the nutrition she needs.
- You can find plenty of breastfeeding tips out there from people who are pretty gung-ho on the matter and eager to help you.
But sometimes it can feel like all that breastfeeding advice is from folks so determined to help you that their excitement is a little suffocating.
And yet, on the other side, you have some folks who are hellbent on being naysayers. That sweet friend who asked me to write this? While she was pregnant, a co-worker told her it would be silly to even try to keep breastfeeding at work. That it “just wouldn’t be worth the trouble.”
What’s it to that person if my friend wants to give it the old college try?
Here’s what I say: Do what you want. If you want to keep nursing while you’re working, go for it. If it’s adding too much stress to your life, think about stopping. Formula will be an added monthly expense, but if it’s your sanity at stake, it’s worth it.
No guilt. No stress. Your baby will be fine, either way.
6 Secrets to Success for Breastfeeding at Work
With both my girls, I kept breastfeeding after returning to work. Was it a pain in the butt? Yes. Am I happy I kept going past the initial hiccups? Yes. If I had stopped, would that have made me a selfish mom? Heck no.
If you want to keep breastfeeding after returning to work, here are the practical tips that helped me keep going, even when it was tough. A lot of these breastfeeding tips overlap with what you’ll hear from the experts. The difference is that I just want you and your baby to be happy and healthy—whether that means you keep nursing or switch to formula or some combination of the two.
Before we get to the tips, a quick disclaimer: This post will not teach you everything you need to know about nursing and pumping. There are whole books about the basics of breastfeeding†. This post focuses on the gotchas of nursing while working. In my experience and from talking to my mom friends, these are the areas most likely to trip you up on your goal of continuing to nurse after you go back to work.
Read on, and let me know in a comment if you have any tips to add!
1. Get Your Baby Ready
While you’re at work, your baby’s caregiver will give him bottles of your pumped milk. This means your baby will need to practice drinking from a bottle before your first day back to work comes.
You might hear conflicting advice on the right time to introduce the bottle to a breastfed baby. In general, you don’t want to introduce the bottle super early (like the first month or so) because your baby is still figuring out how the whole breastfeeding thing works.
On the other hand, you don’t want to leave bottle introduction until a day or two before your first day back at work. Your baby may need more time than that, and if he doesn’t take to the bottle right away your stress level will skyrocket. You’ll start to panic that your baby will STARVE while you’re at work.
Two weeks before you’re scheduled to be back at work is a decent amount of time to introduce the bottle. That’s what I did with my youngest. It worked well, even with my stubborn baby.
Exactly how do you introduce the bottle? For a decent step-by-step with some practical tips, check out Introducing Your Breastfed Baby to the Bottle or Cup.
2. Scope It Out
On your first day back at work, you don’t want to find yourself leaking through your shirt while frantically searching for the lactation room. Here are a few things you can do to make sure you know what to expect:
- Before your first day back, call your HR department and ask if lactation rooms are available. If the answer is no, ask for their ideas on how to accommodate your needs. All you really need is a clean, private room with a power outlet. They could give you the key to an empty storage room, or they could have a lock installed on your office door. But if they tell you to use the bathroom, tell them to try again. According to U.S. law, most workplaces have to provide accommodations for you. Just in case you need it, here’s a summary of federal and state breastfeeding laws.
- The first thing to do on your first day? Well before the time you need to pump, find the lactation room or whatever space has been provided for you. That way, if you have trouble finding it, you’ve given yourself plenty of time to track it down or call HR for help.
- Now scope out the room. Make a mental list of any improvements you’d like to make:
- Is there a lock on the door? If not, make a sign that says “Private—Do Not Enter.” Or buy an official-looking sign and ask HR to reimburse you.
- Is the chair decently comfortable? I’ll get to this in a bit, but the more comfortable you are, the more successful you’ll be at getting your body to comply with being hooked up to a machine and giving up the goods. If it’s a folding chair or a stool, ask if you can use another chair from somewhere else in the office. If that’s not possible, think about bringing in a better chair from home. (Just remember to label it with your name.)
- Is there a table for your pump and/or laptop? You don’t need anything fancy here, but trying to balance your laptop in your lap and hold the pump to your chest may not be very comfortable.
- Is the lighting gross and harsh? The lactation room at my office had an unpleasant overhead fluorescent light, but some lovely nursing mother who paved the way before me acquired a floor lamp for the room, with nice, warm white light—and a foot switch! Again, ask if you can repurpose a lamp from elsewhere in the office. If you can’t do that, think about bringing a lamp from home.
- Does the room have a sink and paper towels for cleaning your pump pieces after you’re done? If not, find the closest bathroom where you’ll need to get your cleaning done.
3. Stock Up
Before your first day back, consider picking up a few essentials:
- A reliable breast pump. If you already have a pump, great. If not, get one before you go back to work and start pumping every day to get some milk stored up for your baby for that first day you’ll be gone. I’ve used both Medela and Ameda pumps, and they were decent. But I LOVE my Spectra pump that I got after Bailey was born. The Spectra is more comfortable for me to use than other pumps I’ve tried, plus it seems to get more milk out than those other brands.
- Extra pump parts. On my second week back to work after having Bailey, I went to the lactation room at my scheduled time, got everything set up, and sat down to pump. The motor turned on, but there was no suction. I checked all the connections, and everything looked good. I tried again. Nope. As it turned out, one of the tubes had some condensation built up and needed to be dried out. Easy fix if you have an extra tube on hand, which I did not. On another day, I got to the room and pulled out all the pump parts and realized I was missing a kind of important part—the flange. I didn’t have an extra on hand, so I had to make a quick run to Babies R Us to pick one up, then rush back to work and pump before my next meeting. Take it from me: Always keep a full set of spare parts in your pump bag.
- A nice bag to carry your pump. Look for something that can pass for a professional bag with less of an “I attach this thing to my boobs to suck them dry” vibe. A lot of pumps come with bags, but I found a fun work bag at an outlet store that worked just fine. This pink bag is so pretty! It’s pricey, but you deserve to treat yourself for making the commitment to keep nursing your baby after returning to work. If you’re ordering online, just be sure to check the dimensions of the bag and compare to the size of your pump to make sure it will fit, along with a bag of pump parts and a cooler bag for the pumped milk.
- Extra nursing pads. Keep them in your desk at work and in your pump bag. No matter how prepared you are, you will probably get delayed on pumping on some days. Meetings will run over, and people will stop by your desk for unplanned visits. They won’t know that your breasts are about to burst, so have extra pads on hand in case you need a fresh pair. I tried reusable pads, but they felt lumpy and made me self-conscious that they were vaguely visible through my shirt. Here’s my favorite brand of disposable nursing pads. They absorbed a lot, and I couldn’t see any signs of them when I was dressed.
- Cleaning supplies. My absolute least favorite part of pumping at work? Having to clean all the parts after I’m done. It’s tedious, and I’m ready to get back to my desk. It feels like it takes forever to clean all those nooks and crannies! You can buy sterilizing bags for your parts that you just throw in the microwave. Or you can rinse everything out and ask your partner to be the official pump part sterilizer every night. Check out the third tip in 7 Baby Must Haves That Make the Perfect Gifts for New Dads for all the supplies he’ll need to fulfill his duties in this important role.
4. Take Care of Yourself
When you’re pregnant, everyone tells you to keep hydrated and eat healthy and get plenty of rest. But you know when all that is even more important? When you’re a nursing mama.
Once you get back into the swing of things at work, you might get caught up in something and forget to break for lunch. You might not get up to refill your water bottle because you’re trying to get an important email out. And you’ll be sorely missing the days when you could catch up on sleep by joining your little one in a midday nap.
Anytime I let one of these areas slip, I could tell the difference when I sat down for my afternoon pump session. Tiny, tiny amounts of milk. My decreased milk supply would stress me out because that would mean my baby wouldn’t have enough milk lined up for the next day.
Here are a few tricks that worked for me:
- Drinks. When I’m pregnant or nursing, I can’t get enough of COLD water. My insulated water bottle was an essential part of staying hydrated at work. I took it with me to meetings, the lactation room, and even to go out to lunch so I could have a few sips in the car. On some days, I’d also bring an Honest Tea juice box for a fun treat. What I love about their juice is that it’s mixed with water so it’s not a huge dose of sugar.
- Snacks. The demands of the workday make it easy to forget to eat regular, healthy snacks. But what you don’t want is to be starving and turn to the vending machine out of desperation. It’s not the best fuel for your body when you’re nursing, and it won’t help you feel good about yourself. Keep a few snacks in your desk so you’re not tempted by the siren call of those mini powdered donuts. One thing I’ll definitely be trying out after my currently gestating baby is born? Lactation cookies. The oatmeal and other ingredients are supposed to help sustain your milk supply. A guilt-free cookie! Try this basic recipe or if you’re a fan of chocolate, try these Chocolate Almond No-Bake Lactation Cookies.
- Rest. You have a newborn at home, so a full night’s sleep probably isn’t happening yet. But try to get decent sleep as much as your little one will allow. Avoid the trap of staying up until 2:00 am catching up on email for work because you’ll definitely feel it the next day. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and like you have to work at night to catch up, it may be time to think about saying no at work more often.
5. Psych Yourself Up
I know moms who can be just as productive while they pump as they are at their desk. My body was a little more high maintenance.
If I got set up to pump and then tried to get right back into whatever I had been working on at my desk, my milk would never let down. At the end of the pumping session, I’d have a quarter of an ounce to show for my 25 minutes of pumping. It felt like a waste of time.
However, if I forced myself to disconnect from my laptop and phone at the start of the pumping session, my milk would let down and I would get 4-5 ounces by the end of the session. After my milk let down, I could be productive. I just needed to fully relax for a few minutes at the beginning. Which is probably not a bad thing to incorporate into a working mama’s day anyway!
Here are a few things that worked for me. I’d do each of these one at a time, progressing to the next if one trick didn’t work in that moment.
- Focus. Put your phone down and close your laptop. The world can wait a couple minutes while you disconnect.
- Breathe. Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Count how many seconds you breathe in, and try to double that time while you breathe out. For example, if you breathe in for 5 seconds, try to expand your exhale to 10 seconds. Typically, 3-5 deep breaths would do the trick for me.
- Watch a video. I kept a few sweet videos of my baby on my phone. If relaxing with deep breaths didn’t get my milk to let down, watching a video of my baby usually did the trick.
- Try something weird. I discovered an odd trick that worked for me, every time. I’ve searched online and can’t find anyone else who’s talked about it, so maybe I’m the only weirdo. But here it is: do a few Kegel exercises while you pump. There is some controversy about whether Kegels help or hurt, but I wasn’t worried about just doing it as a last resort to get my milk to flow. I will note that it was only when I did the push variation that I saw the impact.
If you are still having issues with not pumping enough milk, check out I’m not pumping enough milk. What can I do? or these Supply Boosting tips. Or check out the book The Breastfeeding Mother’s Guide to Making More Milk.
6. Keep Your Appointments
At some point, you’ll be in a situation where you’re tempted to skip one of your pumping appointments. A last-minute meeting will crop up. You’ll be trying to meet a tight deadline. Or maybe you’ll just be tired and not want to get up and go through the whole elaborate pumping routine when you can just zone out while going through email at your desk.
There will be lots of reasons to skip your pumping sessions.
Which makes this my most important tip of all: Keep your appointments with yourself.
If you skip a pump session, your milk supply will decrease. There’s no question of that.
So if you find yourself thinking of skipping your appointment with the lactation room, remember that you’ll pay the price. Maybe not that day, but probably the next day when you sit down to pump at that regular time. You’ll get less milk and be frustrated that you “wasted” all that time with so little to show for it. The next day when that pump time rolls around, you’ll think, “Why bother? I didn’t get much milk anyway.”
Instead of pumping every three hours like clockwork, now you’ll be going five or six hours between pump appointments. This sends the message to your body that it doesn’t need to produce as much milk.
When I tripped up and missed a few appointments, this is exactly what happened. And then when I pumped the next time, my milk was nowhere to be found. Not only was I missing my skipped appointment, but I was also impacting my other appointments.
All this to finish one email or to go to a meeting where I could have gotten a recap from a co-worker instead. Was it worth the added stress?
I gave myself permission to decide between continuing to pump or weaning my baby. Weaning was awfully tempting because it meant I could leave all that pumping stress behind. But here’s what I realized: I was the one creating the stress by skipping my appointments!
After that epiphany, I renewed my commitment to myself and my baby and stopped skipping my appointments. And? No more stress about not getting enough milk.
Before you go, get my FREE cheat sheet: 75 Positive Phrases Every Child Needs to Hear
For more general tips on going back to work after maternity leave, check out 9 Secrets for a Successful Return to Work After Maternity Leave.
What are your tricks for keeping up with breastfeeding after you go back to work? Share your tip in a comment below!