From breastfeeding to pumping: 10 tips for moms headed back to work

March 13, 2019

When Keyona Grant was preparing to go back to work after maternity leave, her baby did what a lot of breastfeeding moms fear: She refused the bottle.

“I tried everything,” says Grant, a certified registered nurse anesthetist and owner of the site Professional Mama. “I left the house, offered it to her when she wasn’t upset, let someone wear my shirt, but nothing worked. I was so scared that she would starve at day care.”

It was nerve-wracking to be sure, but thankfully it was only temporary. Grant’s daughter eventually took to the bottle. And while it would end up being only the first of several challenges they had to overcome, the two were able to continue breastfeeding with the help of a breast pump even after Grant returned to work.

Throughout the process, Grant — like a lot of moms — picked up a few tips and strategies to make transitioning back to work a little less stressful. Here are 10 things she and other experts say can help you make the switch from breastfeeding on-demand to pumping at work.

1. Prepare early

When you’ve just had a baby, it can be tempting to push returning to work to the back of your mind. But procrastination can backfire.

“What most people don’t know is that you have to get in the game way sooner than right before you return to work,” says Brian Salmon, certified lactation counselor and co-author of “The Birth Guy’s Go-To Guide for New Dads: How to Support Your Partner Through Pregnancy, Birth and Breastfeeding.”

Salmon encourages breastfeeding moms and their partners to work out a plan early for how they’ll make pumping work for them and then commit to it just like they did with on-demand breastfeeding.

2. Start pumping well before you need to

Your workplace shouldn’t be the first place you ever use your breast pump. Salmon recommends moms get out their pumps when the baby is a few weeks old to get a feel for how it works and how to use it comfortably. The extra practice can help make the transition back to work go a little more smoothly, says Lauren Macaluso, a physician, international board certified lactation consultant and expert in breastfeeding medicine at Allied Physicians Group.

“Feeding a baby at the breast and expressing milk by hand or with a breast pump are different,” Macaluso says. “Moms usually need some practice before going back to work to get comfortable and confident with their hands and pump and to have milk stored for their upcoming return.”

3. Let baby practice

Just like moms need time to adjust to pumping, babies need to practice eating in a totally new way. Taking milk from a bottle is a different experience from breastfeeding, and it can take babies a little while to get used to it.

Salmon says parents should try to give their babies bottles of pumped or expressed milk, starting when they’re about 4 to 6 weeks old. It doesn’t have to be a lot — about an ounce and a half once a week, he says — and it helps if their non-breastfeeding caregivers are the ones doing that feeding.

4. Talk to your boss

Before heading back to work, talk to your employer about where you’ll be pumping and how often. It might feel a little awkward at first, but how successful you are at pumping can depend a lot on how much support you have at work, says Amanda Gorman, a pediatric nurse practitioner and founder of the telehealth breastfeeding support organization Nest Collaborative. Despite research showing supporting breastfeeding employees can have huge benefits for the employer — like reducing the number of sick days workers take and lowering health insurance costs — some managers may not be aware of what is expected of them or how best to support you.

For advice on how best to approach your supervisor, check out the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ program Business Case for Breastfeeding. It has free resources available to employers and their breastfeeding employees.

5. Ready your supplies   

When you have a limited amount of time to pump, having an organized workspace and pump bag can make all the difference. Some things that might make pumping at work a little more comfortable (and less of a hassle) include:

  • A good quality breast pump. A good pump can make a big difference in how much you’re able to express during each session.

  • A hands-free pumping bra. Not having to hold onto the flanges while you’re pumping can free you up to answer emails or finish up paperwork while you’re pumping away.

  • Extra pump and/or pump parts. An extra pump (one for work, one for home) can minimize the amount of stuff you have to lug to work each day, and extra flanges and pieces can help you avoid having to wash pump parts in the communal kitchen.  

  • A fridge to keep pumped milk cold during the day. If you’re not able to keep one at your workstation, you can keep your milk discreetly in the communal fridge by storing it in an opaque lunch bag.  

  • Pump-friendly clothes. Think clothes that can be pushed aside or lifted up, so that you don’t have to bare all every pump session.

6. Expect changes to your supply

Babies tend to be more efficient than breast pumps at extracting milk, and you might breastfeed more frequently at home than you pump at work. As a result, it’s not uncommon for moms to see a drop in their milk supply after the first few days back on the job.

If that happens, don’t panic. There are a few things you can do to increase the amount of milk you pump each session, including:

  • Massaging your breasts and sides during pumping (see #7)

  • Nursing more often at home and/or pumping after each breastfeeding session

  • Incorporating in an extra “power pumping” session — a process that mimics cluster feeding by alternating pumping and not pumping over a set period of time. (Ex. pump 20 minutes, rest for 10, pump 10 minutes, rest for 10, pump for 10 minutes)  

7. Get handsy

Massaging your breasts can help you express more milk during each pumping session, says Rachael Kish, certified lactation counselor and co-founder of Imalac.

“Gentle compression while pumping will increase the efficiency of your breast pump and help you fully empty your breast, which should ultimately aid in increased milk production,” Kish says.

Figuring out where to massage can take some trial and error. Sometimes you can feel small lumps or aches where milk has yet to be released, but if you can’t, use your fingertips or your knuckles to press down firmly on the side of your breast, including the space just under your armpit, until you find what works best for you.

8. Find a routine and stick to it

Protect your pumping time by blocking it out as a meeting in your calendar or letting your coworkers know you’ll need to step away at specific times every day. Depending on your job, finding enough time could mean getting creative.

For example, as a full-time teacher based in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Brenda Kosciuk’s work schedule was inflexible and her time was limited.
“I had to figure out how to pump quickly in the little pockets of time that I had,” Kosciuk says.

She squeezed in pumping sessions where she could, like in her car on the way to work. Finding and sticking to her routine — no matter what — was important to her and her endeavor to keep breastfeeding throughout her baby’s first year.  

9. Gather support

While going back to work can be a challenge — physically and mentally — surrounding yourself with family and friends who support you can make a big difference in how quickly you adapt to the new routine and being away from your baby.

It can also be helpful to scope out breastfeeding resources available to you, Macaluso says, such as:

  • Lactation consultants. Some birthing hospitals offer a free hotline breastfeeding moms can call for advice with pumping, as well as nursing on-demand.  

  • Peer counseling and support groups. Interacting with other breastfeeding moms can be a great way to get (and give) advice on pumping.

  • Baby cafes. These drop-in centers provide a place for breastfeeding moms to get guidance and support without the need for an appointment or formal consult.

  • Legal resources. The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires most employers to accommodate breastfeeding workers by giving them adequate break time and a private space to pump that’s not a bathroom. Check out local breastfeeding advocacy groups or visit WomensHealth.gov for more information about your rights in the workplace.

10. Hang in there

Pumping at work is rarely easy, especially when you’re already going through the emotional rollercoaster of recovering from childbirth and leaving your new baby in the care of someone else. That said, prepping in advance, finding your rhythm and gathering support can help you overcome some common challenges and make continuing to breastfeed more manageable.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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