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Returning to Work While Breastfeeding

Returning to work after maternity leave can be a big challenge for new mothers. You’re learning how to balance your life as a new working mom, preparing your baby for childcare, and a host of other concerns. When it comes to worries surrounding breastfeeding at work, Women’s Health CT has the answers to make your transition as seamless as possible. Many mothers who return to work continue to breastfeed their infants by expressing milk at work and saving it to feed their infant while separated. At Women’s Health CT, many practices have lactation consultants on-staff and all our divisions are affiliated with hospitals that have access to lactation support. We talked with Sara Wright, RN, and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), of With Women Wellness to answer some questions you might have about breastfeeding and returning work:

Is there anything I can do during pregnancy or maternity leave to pre-plan for going back to work?

I always recommend that new mothers prepare for their breastfeeding journey by taking a breastfeeding class or making an appointment with a local IBCLC certified Lactation Consultant before their child’s birth. Mothers can attend breastfeeding support groups through their local La Leche League and Breastfeeding USA chapters, which is a great way to gain peer-to-peer support before and after the birth of their baby. Talking to peers and professionals about what to expect upon return to work and having a plan can help mothers feel more comfortable in their ability to maintain the breastfeeding relationship when transition back to work.

Before going on maternity leave, expecting mothers should talk to their employers about their plans to breastfeed at work. Communication and open dialogue about the mother’s needs and how the employer can best support her can help ease the transition back to the workplace. Having these conversations gives the employer ample time to make any adjustments.

Be familiar with your state and federal laws that protect breastfeeding mothers.  Every breastfeeding woman should be aware that there are laws in place that protect nursing mothers in the workplace. Knowing your rights can help new mothers advocate for themselves and ensure the breastfeeding relationship is protected. In certain circumstances, it may be helpful to share a copy of these laws with the employer. 

Mothers may decide to start expressing breast milk a few weeks after the arrival of their new baby. Depending on the length of the mother's maternity leave she may decide to initiate pumping sooner rather than later. I recommend starting a least a few weeks prior to the mother's anticipated return to work. Expressing milk in the weeks leading up to the mother's return to work will help her build up her milk supply of stored milk, let the mother get comfortable using her breast pump, and may reduce feelings of stress regarding having enough stored milky. If the mother starts expressing milk earlier in the postpartum period, she can start slowly increase frequency of pumping as she gets comfortable.

What should I prepare to bring to work with me each day for pumping?

In planning for what to bring to work with you each day, think about the items you will need to adequately express, store, and transport your breast milk. Bring your electric breast pump and all accessories. You will need bottles, or milk storage bags to collect and store expressed milk. I recommend having a small bottle of hand sanitizer, a permanent marker, and a small container of dish soap in your pumping bag. This way milk can be appropriately labeled with the date and time of expression and pumping accessories can be washed. An insulated cooler and ice packs are necessary for proper storage of breast milk when a refrigerator is not available and helps to keep milk cold while being transported home. 

How often should I pump while I am at work? Is there anything I should ask my Human Resources Department about for privacy and storage?

When a mother returns to work it is very important to pump frequently throughout the workday.  Breast milk supply is maintained by frequent milk removal and breast drainage. Mothers should pump as often as the baby would normally nurse. I recommend pumping every two or three hours to mimic normal newborn breastfeeding patterns. Pump for about 20 minutes, or until the milk stops flowing. Keep in mind, that the more often breast milk is expressed, the better the chances the mother has of maintaining full milk production.

I would suggest asking your Human Resources Department about what kind of space is available for expressing milk during the workday. Ask if the room is private or a shared space. If the room is a spared space, ask how many people can have access to the room and comfortably pump at one time and if there any room dividers or privacy shades available. You may also want to ask about what kind of furniture is in the room and whether you'll have access to electrical outlets, a sink, and a refrigerator.  

What is the best way to plan for the week to be sure I have enough breastmilk stocked for my baby while I am away during each day?

I usually recommend planning for 1 to 1.5 ounces of breast milk per hour the mother and baby are separated. For example, if the mother will be away from the baby for ten hours, the mother should aim to have approximately 10 to 15 ounces of breast milk available for her baby. For mothers who may have less flexibility in their schedule, or who anticipate difficulty with having enough time to pump while at work, it may be helpful to pump more frequently to further increase milk stores.

I am at work and my breast pump broke! What should I do?

I think it’s important for all mothers to be familiar and comfortable with hand expression. Hand expression can be useful if the mother forgets her breast pump at home, her breast pump breaks, or there is an electrical power outage. Hand expression allows the mother to express her milk and protect her milk supply if unforeseen circumstances arise. Other options are to ask a caregiver to bring the baby to her at work to nurse if that’s a viable option. The mother may also seek out breast pump rental options, such as local hospitals, pharmacies, durable medical equipment distributors, or lactation consultants who offer on-site pump rentals near the mother’s workplace.

How do I cope with missing the nursing bond with my baby while I am transitioning to my new schedule? 

New mothers may need extra support from their spouses or partners during this transition. Have an open discussion with your partner and talking about your feelings.  Some women find it helpful to start back slowly, gradually increasing their hours. This is also a discussion to have with an employer to find out if such options are available.

My milk supply has decreased since I have returned to work – what should I do?

Any time a mother has a concern regarding her milk production, I strongly recommend working with an IBCLC to help make an individualized plan. If you find your milk supply decreases, try keeping a pumping log and evaluate your pumping schedule. It may be necessary to increase the frequency and duration of pumping to make sure you are maximizing daily milk output. Some women find it helpful to think about their baby during pumping to help increase your maternal hormones. Try having a picture of your baby nearby, or an item that belongs to your baby to help increase your milk flow. Stress can also be a factor, some women find music, meditation, or guided imagery techniques helpful for stress reduction during pumping. It may also be beneficial to cover pumping bottles with a burp cloth or sock during expression so that the mother remains relaxed and does not focus on the flow of milk or the volume collected, which has been shown to increase milk output.

How can my partner support me with transitioning back to work?

Support is crucial during the transition back to work. It is essential to have open conversations with each other about the needs of the mother during this time. Partners can help by listening and understanding the challenges that the mother may face as she returns to work. It is helpful for the partner to reduce the mother’s workload by taking on some of the daily household and family tasks.  Taking over some of the household responsibilities allows the mother to focus on bonding and nursing in the evening hours.  

Whether you’re working part-time or full-time, the best advice is to make the most of every moment you have with your baby. Know that it is completely natural to miss your baby and to miss nursing, especially at first. It takes time to feel comfortable with the transition back to work, but that it does get easier. You may find those special bonding and nursing moments when you return home from work very restorative. Remember, every Women’s Health Connecticut provider will be able to provide support or refer you to a consultant and resources to help you. Additional assistance varies in different levels of training and experience:  Peer counselors, Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC’s), and International Board-Certified Lactation Consultants (IBCLC’s). La Leche League offers wonderful support and some hospitals and pediatricians also have breastfeeding support contacts. If you prefer a home visit some IBCLC and CLC’s are in private practice. IBCLC’s are listed by each state (and country) on the ILCA website: https://www.ilca.org/why-ibclc/falc.

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