Pumping sucks, both literally and figuratively. After two kids, I estimate I’ve spent 19 months of my life expressing milk while attached to cold plastic at various times of the workday. I’ve learned a thing or two in those over-air-conditioned offices with only printer paper taped to the windows to shield my coworkers from my boobs.
If you intend to pump, here are few tips from me and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (“IBCLC”) Avery Giordano to make the first days back to work a little easier.
Giordano and her business partner Jennifer Duckles founded The Village-South Jersey Breastfeeding & Wellness with the mission to support women “throughout their journey through motherhood,” including the transition back to work.
1. Get friendly with your pump.
These things look like medieval torture devices. Practice assembling and disassembling your pump a few times before you need it. Eventually, you’ll be able to snap that thing together while typing an email to your boss. Just don’t wait until you’re engorged and trying to squeeze in your first pump session before a conference call to attempt it.
“Most Lactation Consultants recommend that you begin pumping once or twice a day, once breastfeeding is well established, usually around 4 to 6 weeks,” Giordano said. “This will allow you to put away a nice freezer stash of expressed milk and relieve some of the pressure when you first return to work.”
2. Prepare your baby.
Obviously, your baby has to learn to drink from a bottle if you’re not there to nurse on demand. It’s best to introduce the bottle after breastfeeding is established but early enough that your baby adapts easily.
“Begin offering some expressed breastmilk by bottle around 4 to 6 weeks,” Giordano said. “Using expressed milk one or two times a week will help the baby become comfortable with bottle-feeding.”
From my experience, I recommend handing someone else the bottle and getting your boobs out of sight. Truth is, most nursing babies would 100 percent rather have the real thing. Instead of hovering nervously nearby, go take that shower you’ve wanted for the last couple days.
“We do find that some babies will refuse bottles despite their parents’ best efforts,” Giordano added. “Of course this is super stressful for parents and adds to the already mounting ‘return to work anxiety.’ The good news is that once your baby and their caregiver establish their own routines, this problem usually resolves.”
The first week is usually a tough transition for everyone. Don’t get frustrated if something isn’t working.
3. Know your childcare provider’s rules.
Any childcare provider with multiple breastfed infants should require that all breastmilk be marked with the child’s name, the date it was expressed and the ounces. In addition, most will have rules about the age of breastmilk (both frozen and fresh). Knowing the rules will help prevent waste. I once had to throw away 18 ounces of breastmilk because both the teacher and I thawed frozen bags for the same day. (Yeah, I’m still bitter about that.)
4. Know your rights.
According to provisions in the 2010 Affordable Care Act (ACA):
• You have a right to take unpaid breaks to pump whenever you need.
• You have a right to a place to pump at work other than a bathroom. (If you wouldn’t eat your lunch there, you shouldn’t pump there.)
Individual state laws may provide additional rights as well. It’s important to know the rights granted by your state and any exceptions to federal and state laws governing your employer. For example, if your employer has fewer than 50 employees they may be exempt from the ACA.
5. Before you return to work, notify your employer that you intend to express milk.
You need to know where you’re going to pump and store your milk. They probably want to know why you disappear for 15 minutes, three times a day. It’s probably not a conversation you’re eager to have with your boss or HR personnel, but it’s an important one. Having your employer’s support (or at least making your employer aware that you’ll be exercising your rights to express milk) is key to pumping success.
6. Brace yourself.
Unless you work at a strip club, the first time you expose your breasts a work, even behind closed doors, is beyond awkward. What if someone walks in? What if my coworkers hear the pump? Is the printer paper I taped on the window really opaque? Just make sure the door has a lock and try not to worry what anyone thinks.
Once you get over being half naked and switch on the pump, you’ll think of your baby (because the bitch Nature decided THAT was the best way to get the milk flowing) and may experience crushing mommy guilt. Or, and I hope this never happens to you, you’ll knock over one of the bottles at the end of your pump session. Go ahead, cry over spilled milk. You’re in excellent company.
7. Ask for help now and whenever you need it.
After a long day in the office, spending all my breaks expressing milk, the last thing I wanted to do was clean pump parts. Anyone can soak and sterilize plastic, so let anyone else do it. Manufacturing and harvesting liquid gold takes effort. It’s OK to ask for help when you feel overwhelmed or tired. Often your partner, friends and family are more than willing to step in. You just HAVE TO ASK.
The most important piece of advice, according to Giordano, is to be flexible. “Being a working breastfeeding mom is an ever-changing role,” she said. “We encourage moms to plan for their return to work and consider logistics, but we also stress not being rigid. Sometimes when you get back into your work environment things need adjusting and tweaking. The first week is usually a tough transition for everyone. Don’t get frustrated if something isn’t working. Just try something different.”
Yes, pumping sucks, but I have zero regrets. Providing breastmilk helped me feel connected to my girls while I was away from them. And as much as I loathed feeling like an engorged cow in the milking barn two to three times a day, I loved nursing my girls in the mornings, evenings and weekends.
The most important tip I can offer is to make the choices that best fit your family. That may mean pumping for months, supplementing with formula or weaning entirely. Whatever your decision, you should feel ZERO guilt.
“Breastfeeding is not an all or nothing experience,” Giordano added. “If you are experiencing difficulties with pumping at work consider reaching out to your local IBCLC or a working mom breastfeeding support forum online. There are many solutions that allow the breastfeeding relationship to continue even if Mom is unable to continue pumping at work.”