Go, you. You’ve got the hang of breastfeeding your new baby and your maternity leave is flying happily by (if all too fast). What you need next: a back-to-work breastfeeding plan.
“One of the biggest questions I hear is, ‘What about when I go back to work?’” says lactation consultant and nurse Julie Hawksley, founder of Call the LC, which works with both individual moms and companies in the San Francisco Bay area. “More and more companies are getting good at accommodating nursing moms, which is encouraging,” she says. “But new moms are understandably worried. Having a plan can help you worry less and breastfeed longer.”
Here’s her confidence-building plan:
3 to 6 weeks before you go back to work, do this
Get a breast pump and start using it. Lots of new nursing moms skip pumping—until they absolutely need to. The thing is, it can take time to get the hang of using the machine. If you haven’t pumped during your maternity leave, trying to figure it out just a day or two before can cause a whole lotta stress you don’t need.
Be sure it’s a really, really good pump. The double-electric kind cost more, but these are way more efficient than flimsier manual pumps, and most women find them easier to use, Hawksley says. Look for one that allows you to pump hands-free, important because you’ll probably want to stay busy while you pump.
If you’re trying to increase your milk supply, she suggests the Ameda Platinum or Medela Symphony hospital-grade rental pumps. “These are more powerful, durable, and efficient to help you collect more milk faster,” she says. (Ask a lactation consultant or your ob-gyn’s office where to rent one.)
Tip: If you have any problems, such as nipple pain or low milk supply, you’ll likely qualify for a hospital-grade breast pump rental covered by your insurance. (Even without problems, many health insurance plans cover the cost of an automatic, single-user electric breast pump with no cost-sharing or co-pay. Some insurance plans provide you with a pump after the baby is born. Others will reimburse you for the cost of a breast pump that you purchase yourself. Be sure to check with your insurer.)
If your milk supply is already well established, a simpler pump is fine, Hawksley says. Those sold at baby stores, like the Medela Pump In Style, are great for maintaining your milk supply, she adds. They’re compact, lightweight, and often come in a backpack that’s easy to carry to work.
Tip: Buy an extra set of pump parts to save yourself from having to do so much cleaning. Wash all parts when you get home at the end of the day (except the tubing). It’s a good idea to buy extra valves and membranes, too, since they’re delicate pieces that break easily—and your breast pump won’t operate properly without them.
Freeze two to four ounces at a time to have on hand later. “Most moms feel more comfortable if they have a stash in the freezer, and this practice time is a good time to build it up,” Hawksley says. Don’t worry that your baby won’t have enough milk if you’re doing extra pumping while still exclusively breastfeeding. The more you need, the more your body makes. Your baby won’t miss out because you’re rehearsing with the pump on the side.
2 to 3 weeks before you go back, do this
Do some short practice sessions with your childcare provider. Let the provider begin to feed your baby pumped breast milk in a bottle once every two or three days. This avoids having your baby’s first encounters with a bottle be your first days back to work, so you’ll have one less thing to worry about. Sucking from a bottle can take a little getting used to. It’s best if someone other than you introduces it, so your baby doesn’t smell you and your milk and get frustrated, wondering what’s up with the new nipple.
Have your partner practice additional bottle feedings between breastfeedings. This helps your baby stay used to the idea of a bottle. Best times for this: when your baby is happy, calm, and quiet (in baby-speak, that’s when she’s most open-minded).
2 weeks before you go back, do this
Practice following what you expect will be your workday routine for one day. Wake and dress as you would for work. Plan enough time in the morning to both breastfeed your baby and also pump before you have to leave the house. Set your phone’s timer to also practice using your pump at times when you anticipate taking breaks at work. “When you’re working an eight-hour day, you can anticipate pumping every three to four hours, 15 to 20 minutes at a time, to maintain an abundant milk supply,” Hawksley says.
This gives you a chance to spot and work out any glitches. Think of it as a dress rehearsal for going back to work (without having to kiss your baby goodbye).
Try out your work clothes. Can you pump easily with the bras and tops you’re planning to wear? “Look for pumping bras that allow you to pump hands-free, important because you’ll probably wind up eating lunch or working while you pump,” Hawksley suggests. Make sure you have enough work-appropriate options without having to do laundry every other day. Your clothing size may have changed, too.
Tip: Patterned tops hide any leaking. Button-front shirts make access easier for pumping.
Set the pump to mimic the sucking pattern of your baby. Babies suckle quickly at the beginning of a feeding to trigger the let-down of your milk. Once the milk starts to flow, babies begin to suck more slowly, with stronger, deeper pulls and audible swallows, Hawksley says. “So set the speed of your pump high in the beginning, then turn it down after one or two minutes, once your milk starts to flow. Some breast pumps, like the Medela brand, reduce the speed automatically, two minutes after you turn it on.” Set the speed faster again if you notice your milk slowing down, to help trigger the flow of more milk.Make sure everything feels comfortable. “Pumping should be comfortable to improve milk flow,” Hawksley says. While pumping, gradually increase the strength of suction to your highest comfortable setting. If it hurts, it’s too high. Pain inhibits the “let-down” of your milk. The breast pump flange has to fit correctly, too. If the fit is too tight, you’ll see your nipple rubbing against the sides of the tunnel, and pumping may be painful. Use a larger size for a more comfortable fit.
Practice some ways to relax. When you’re actually breastfeeding, the warmth, weight, and sight of your baby all help you to unwind and let the milk flow. While pumping in a busy workplace? You need other relaxation cues. “Don’t watch the bottle fill,” Hawksley urges. Better: Play music, scroll through pictures of your baby on your phone, or distract yourself with funny YouTube videos, she suggests. Or make a video of you nursing your baby that you can watch when you pump—a surefire way to get your milk to flow.
The day before you go back, do this
Pack everything you’ll need for the big day. This includes:
- your pump
- an extension cord (until you know for sure you won’t need it)
- pump parts
- storage bottles (label date and time collected, use oldest milk first)
- cooler bag and freezer packs
- nipple cream
- breast pads to absorb leaks
- lunch and snacks that are easy to eat while you’re pumping
As soon as you can, do this
Talk to your supervisor about your breastfeeding plan (ideally while you’re still pregnant). “It depends on your employer, but you can expect many won’t like to talk about it, though they probably know it’s your right to do it. Having a discussion allows them to be prepared,” Hawksley says. Under the Affordable Care Act, she notes, employers must provide time and space for new moms to express milk until their babies are one year old. (Beware: Employers with fewer than 50 employees are exempt if providing these basics would be an “undue hardship.”)
Good things to bring up or find out:
- Can you return gradually? Being able to work part-time or on a flexible schedule even for just the first week or so can lower stress as you work out your new feeding plan.
- Where will you pump? You’re entitled to a clean, private space other than a bathroom.
- Where will you store your milk? Is there a refrigerator, or will you bring a small cooler? (It’s okay to store breast milk at room temperature—up to 77 degrees F—while you’re at work for up to six to eight hours. Otherwise you’ll need to store it in a refrigerator or in an insulated cooler bag with freezer pack, keeping the ice packs in contact with your containers of milk.)
- Is there a lactation support program at your workplace? Worth asking, as larger companies increasingly have them. Talking to co-workers who have made the transition can really help you navigate the ins and outs of your particular workplace.
You don’t have to pump endlessly. When you’re off work in the evenings or on weekends, take a break from pumping and continue breastfeeding.
Going back to work as a breastfeeding mom can be challenging or wrenching, tiring or a bit of a relief—or let’s face it, at different times, all of these things. Planning ahead for this big transition will smooth the way. You’ll feel a little less awkward, a little more confident—and your baby will be just fine.
- Julie Hawksley, the founder of Call the LC, is a registered nurse and lactation consultant; she’s based in San Francisco.
- Dear Mom-to-be: Knowing these 5 little gems about breastfeeding will make life a whole lot easier for both of us. Signed, your baby
- Find more lactation consultants.