Working motherhood has long involved a trade-off that is painful for many: breastfeed, or go back to work. Today, many working mothers have a third choice: go back to work and bring your breast pump with you. This technology is liberating: it means that we can work (most of us have to, some of us also want to) and continue to provide breast milk for our babies. It is also enslaving: because the technology exists, many of us feel we have no choice but to use it, no matter how difficult and awkward the process might be. Whether you see your breast pump as your best friend or your worst enemy, if you’re going to head back to work with that you’re-not-fooling-anybody fake briefcase in hand, you need to be prepared. It’s not always easy to sneak away multiple times a day to pump, so planning can go a long way. The strategies for working and pumping could fill a book – in fact, I’m writing one. But in the meantime, there are some basic steps that you can take while still on maternity leave, if you want to give breastfeeding and working a shot.
1. Get to know your pump. If you haven’t pumped yet, it’s time to call a friend or lactation consultant and get her to show you how. Not tell you – SHOW you.
2. Introduce the bottle to your baby. When you’re going back to work, you really don’t have much of a choice about whether to give your baby a bottle, so it’s best for your sanity to just get it done. Kellymom.com (aka your new best friend) has a page with links to expert articles on introducing the bottle.
3. Build up your freezer milk stash. Start by pumping immediately after your baby’s first morning feeding, when your body has more milk. This will give you plenty of time to replenish your milk supply before the next feeding. Pediatricians estimate that a baby eats, on average, 25 ounces of breast milk a day. As an example scenario, at six feedings a day, that is 4-5 ounces per feeding. If you’ll miss three feedings while at work, you’ll need 12-15 ounces with your baby’s caregiver. Double or triple that to create a buffer, and you have your goal amount to freeze before returning to work.
4. Understand your rights at work. The Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) covers wage-earners and federal employees. If you’re either of those things, your employer has to provide “reasonable break time” for up to a year, and a non-bathroom, private place to express milk. If the ACA doesn’t apply to you, check out your state’s laws. If you’re out of luck with legal protections, find out whether your employer has a policy.
5. Know the basics of what you’ll need at work.
- Private pumping space. Door that locks, place to sit, electrical outlet (most pumps come with a battery pack just in case). If you can’t find a space like this, you’ll notice that your car fits this definition.
- Time to pump. 2-3 times per day, 10-30 minutes, plus a few minutes to store milk and clean parts.
- Freezer or fridge to store milk. If there is nowhere to store, you’ll have to bring a cooler.
- Somewhere to wash the parts in between pumping sessions. If this isn’t an option, throw the parts, unwashed, into a large Ziploc bag, and refrigerate them until next time.
6. Find allies at work. Find other new-ish mothers in your workplace to give you the lay of the land. If you’re the first woman to have a baby at your workplace, brainstorm people that you can bring into your circle, explain your situation to, and ask for help when you return.
7. Think about and write out your ideal situation. How many times during the work day? How long it will take? Where will you pump? Where will you store your milk during the day? How you will make this work with your schedule: someone covering for you, you bringing your phone or laptop with you, or syncing up with lunch and other breaks?
8. Talk to HR and your manager. Do this while you’re still pregnant, if possible. Share your rough plan in a spirit of being proactive but open to input. Be prepared for a whole range of responses and whatever you do, do not lose your cool. Next, don’t delay the boss conversation until you are back from maternity leave. That will just put additional stress on you. When you have a plan agreed on, write up an email, thanking HR and boss for their support and asking them to reply with any notes so you are all on the same page. Open and close with statements about your intention to have a productive and engaged return to work.
9. Go clothes shopping. Nursing clothes are, by and large, terrible. But you can make a lot of regular clothes work as nursing clothes. You need dresses and tops that allow you to somewhat comfortably expose your boobs without taking the garment off or pulling it up around your neck. Some great ideas include a crossover/overlapping V-neck; button downs, including “henley” shirts with buttons at the top or cowl-necks.
10. Do a dress rehearsal day. Dress in work clothes. Pump without your baby in the room, and do whatever you’ll have to do at work: hold the door handle, share desk space with a laptop, work on emails. Then pack everything up and walk to your kitchen. Look at what you have the milk stored in and ask yourself if you’re comfortable with Tim from Accounts Payable seeing it in the office fridge. If you expect to pump in the car, go do it. It will take so much of the mystery out of the process.
Bonus tip: Give yourself a break. What you are about to try to do is HARD. Be kind to yourself. If you’re not making enough milk to, you’re not a failure. Your worth as a mother is not measured in ounces.
Now go forth, incredible mama, and do three big jobs at once (work, raise child, make milk). You may sometimes wonder if you’re doing any of them well. Know that there are millions of working new mothers standing shoulder-to-shoulder with you: exhausted, hormonal, anxious, elated – and we think you are amazing.