When I returned to work after maternity leave with my first child, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect on the nursing front. I knew I needed to pump a few times a day in order to keep up with breastfeeding at home, so I figured I could simply slot space in my daily calendar, put milk in the fridge, and call it good. The reality? I shared a tiny, windowless office —more of a closet, really — with three other pumping moms, which meant we had to coordinate our respective nursing schedules with not our teams, but each other, too. Every day involved a stressful day of: do I have enough time to pump? Did I produce enough milk? Where are my clean parts? And so on.
Of course, I’m technically one of the “lucky” ones — I had a private space to pump, a place to store milk, and juuuuust enough work flexibility to make it happen. I ended up nursing my son for about six months, and while I’m proud of that fact, there’s also so much I wish I would’ve known beforehand in order to be more successful. Here’s what real moms and experts recommend for those navigating the transition back to work with breastfeeding or pumping on their to-do list:
Prioritize a breastfeeding relationship first, then introduce pumping and bottles
I probably spent the first six weeks of my son’s life simply trying to get the hang of breastfeeding, which in hindsight, worked well for us. Around the two-month mark, I started pumping 1-2 times a day in order to store some breastmilk in the fridge and give myself a little breathing room. When I eventually went back to work, the ratio sort of shifted: I could only breastfeed during the week in the early mornings and evenings after I got home, and instead pumped several times a day. I remember feeling relieved each and every time my son latched on, rather than an annoying breast pump, and that relationship is what helped us get through another couple of months.
“The preparation of going back to work is both physical and emotional,” says Dr. Sharon Somekh, pediatrician and lactation consultant. “Once moms have established milk supply and are feeding their baby successfully during maternity leave, I usually recommend pumping about once a day to start storing milk that can either be used when heading back to work or if they need to leave the baby with someone even during their maternity leave. This is not only helpful in starting to build a freezer stash of breast milk but also in establishing a better milk supply.”
According to Dr. Yvonne Bohn, OBGYN and women’s health expert at Providence Saint John’s Health Center, it’s important to focus on breastfeeding first, and then once you’ve got a good routine going, you can introduce a bottle and start pumping prior to returning to work. That way, you can ensure your baby will take a bottle as well as begin to store extra milk.
In terms of balancing both breastfeeding and pumping, you primarily want to nurse first, then pump, which will help build up your supply. Jessica Trimberger, a mom who nursed both her children for over a year while working full-time, says this tip was a “lifesaver” for her; it kept her supply up while pumping at work but she still had enough milk at home, too. She also pumped at night, even when the baby slept.
Another piece of advice that can help? “Try to coordinate with your caregiver so that they don’t give your baby a bottle around pick-up time,” says Laura Wallace, mom and director of early learning at Maternity Care Coalition. “Nurse your baby as soon as you pick them up or on site, right when you arrive. I found that the nursing session that I had immediately when I got back to my son was the most important. It helped him reconnect to me and got us back into our nursing pattern for the rest of the night.”
Invest in a good breast pump and whatever accessories make your life easier
I remember sitting in the hospital bed 24 hours after delivering, and being asked which hospital-grade pump I wanted brought up to the room — to which, I was like, “Um . . . any of them?” Since I wasn’t sure if breastfeeding would indeed work for me, I didn’t do much research or buy a bunch of stuff in advance. Now, I know that the type of pump you get actually matters quite a bit in terms of ease, discreetness, and volume level, and even though there are hundreds of accessories that claim to help with breastfeeding, some are bogus and others are legitimately amazing.
“Buy and use one of the ridiculous looking, absurdly bizarre but amazingly effective hands-free pumping bustiers,” says Amy Rosenow, mom and CEO of Jugl. “I could read a magazine or drink water or check emails or whatever I wanted. My husband would come in and crack up when I used it at home, but it made the whole thing so much easier, and made the time pass much more quickly.”
Also, remember to keep backup items accessible, like a towel in case of spills, an extra shirt, or a second set of breast pump supplies for forgetful days. “I forgot my breast shields one morning,” says Amanda Glenn, a mom of three who pumped for all her kids. “I asked every other mom that had pumped in my department, but no one had any I could borrow. I ended up going to Walgreens and buying a manual pump to use that day.”
“Put together a back-to-work kit for yourself to be prepared for the unexpected,” advises Dr. Stacy Yeager, mother and founder of a breastfeeding support group for black moms. “Pictures of your baby, index cards with positive words, extra parts for your pump, breast pads, storage milk bags, cloth, deodorant, stain remover pads, water bottles, and sanitary napkins (you never know when you’re going to start your period again). I learned with my second child that it’s normal to forget some basic things when trying to get everything unpacked and reloaded for the next day. It’s helpful to have supplies in the desk drawer for those days.”
Other items that might make your life easier: sanitizing hand wipes, a permanent marker to label milk bags, an insulated bag to hold milk or ice packs and alternate power sources, like a battery pack or car adapter.
Stick to a schedule (your boobs will thank you)
TMI: boobs that are ready to either pump or feed a baby are uncomfortable as hell. They can feel tight, itchy, hard as a rock, and even painful to the touch (all of which can easily lead to infections like mastitis). When I breastfed at home on maternity, I didn’t think too much about routine other than soothing my son when he was hungry, and that’s because, well, I was home all the time. Once I returned to work, I had to pump at regularly scheduled intervals to keep up my milk supply, but also give my boobs some much-needed relief.
Here’s what worked for me: I tracked when I breastfed, how long each session lasted, and then tried to mimic the same thing with pumping while noting how much I produced each time on average. More than anything, I scheduled pumping sessions at work just as I would for any meeting or conference call.
“Block your calendar with time to pump before you return to work,” adds mom Julie Finn. “When you’re newly back to work, there is usually a lot to catch up on and people will start booking things on your calendar before you even walk back into the office. Having the time already blocked on your calendar ensures you’re able to pump as often as you need to, usually three times for an eight- or nine-hour work day.”
Know your rights, and advocate for what you need
During this time of my life, I worked in a small cubicle of a corporate office, so I brought my pumping stuff to work each day and then darted off to a small closet-like space with a tiny refrigerator whenever I needed to pump. I shared the room with another nursing mom in a nearby department, and we handed off a key and labeled our milk. There was an outlet in there, so I could bring my computer and multitask at the same time, and my supervisor (a mom herself) was extremely vocal and supportive about me taking the time to pump. On the whole, I considered myself lucky. I also didn’t think of asking for more.
“When I returned to my corporate job after the birth of my first child, I was woefully unprepared,” notes Finn. “The problem was I didn’t ask the right or enough questions — I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Because I had my own office, I thought that all of my needs related to pumping and breastfeeding when I returned to work were covered. I invested in a portable breast pump that had a sleek design so I could carry into my office. I had no connection to other women my company who had returned to work after maternity leave and therefore often felt isolated. When I needed to pump, I would put a post-it note on my door and hope no one would walk in. I was so stressed when I pumped that it made it difficult to relax. If I had to do it all again, I would ask for a lactation room as not only do they provide privacy, but also a sense of community.”
Even though breastfeeding moms do have a number of legal protections in place — break time to pump and the right to an insurance-covered pump — not all companies necessarily know how to accommodate them. If your employer doesn’t have anyone who has ever had a child (it happens!), then you’ll need to be your own advocate, says Jane Scudder, a leadership and career coach who frequently works with moms returning after maternity leave. Look up what other companies have done and make a list of what you want and need to successfully pump. Then, approach your human resources department, manager or a superior for support.
“Advocate for yourself and know your rights,” emphasizes Gina Nebesar, cofounder of Ovia Health. “Leaders who have more influence should consider what other coworkers might need. For example, someone might give up on breastfeeding or find another job if they are not supported with a functional mothers room and culture that supports pumping breaks. The best employers will want to support you in this transition to working parenthood.”
Educate your team(s) if necessary
Another huge perk I experienced? Working with a team of mostly women, many of which were newer mothers. That meant every single issue, from breastfeeding to sleep woes to conversations about balance, was generally welcome in conversation. My coworkers knew when I had to go pump, no questions asked, and they supported whatever I needed to stick to a routine and be successful. However, that’s definitely not the norm.
“My office is mainly women, but most do not have children,” says Parsell. “Because of this, many did not understand why I needed to stick to a schedule when pumping. My boss empowered me to kick people out of the room when I had it booked to pump. I also played the role of an educator about why I needed to pump during work hours. I made the mistake with my first [child] to just disappear and not talk about it, and it led to more angst on my end than it was worth. Basically, I needed to educate my coworkers to understand that I’m not pumping for ‘fun.’”
Although it may feel like all you do is talk about being a mom, especially as a new mother, it’s important to be open about your experience, says Scudder. But that’s okay — and talking to other moms at work might help you build an additional support system.
Breastfeeding as a working mom might be difficult, but it’s not impossible
I’m exceptionally proud of the fact that I breastfed after going back to work, mostly because it was so damn hard. Regardless if whether or not you choose to breastfeed (I’m a strong proponent of #fedisbest), motherhood teaches you to be resourceful, resilient, and willing to do anything for your child — and for me, the experience of nursing as a working mom only expanded those skills tenfold.
“Over the course of my journey as a working mom, I have pumped in bathroom stalls, airplane bathrooms, airport lounges, dusty supply closets, designated lactation rooms, my own office, hotel rooms — you name it,” says Rosenow. “I have shipped frozen breastmilk back from business trips via FedEx, packed it in my luggage under the plane with ice packs, attempted to explain it in my carry-on to TSA agents. Keep your sense of humor, because it won’t go perfectly every day.”
Trust that it’ll get easier over time, too, says Dr. Yeager. “I remember having a love/hate relationship with my pump,” she says. “I realized that after a year of nursing, I did not have to pump as much as I did in the beginning. I always tell new moms that the infant stage is the best age in life. Enjoy your baby, because they will grow, and soon you’ll be wondering where the time went!”