Breastfeeding and returning to work: Part 1

Tips for breastfeeding as you return to work.

A black and white image of a breastfeeding parent.
Photo: Pexels/Alina Matveycheva.

This article is part of a two-part series on breastfeeding and the workplace. Read part two here.

Supporting breastfeeding (or lactating, nursing or chest-feeding) parents in the workplace is important to maintain breast milk as a primary source of nourishment for babies. In the U.S., the American Academy of Pediatrics currently recommends to exclusively feed breast milk to babies for the first six months after birth.

One of the major barriers to exclusively breastfeeding is to provide breast milk for your baby while at work. Many lactating parents are faced with the demand of balancing work responsibilities with the desire to continue breastfeeding their baby. With the right planning and support, though, successfully breastfeeding the baby while working full time is possible to achieve.

While pregnant and at work:

  • Communicate. Have a conversation with your supervisor regarding your needs and that you plan on breastfeeding or pumping when you return to work. It is required under the law for the majority of workers to be provided accommodations. Know your rights under the PUMP Act.
  • Explain that you may need regular breaks, in a private place that is not a bathroom, to pump if you plan to feed your baby in person on your breaks.
  • Organize and plan to minimize interference with your workload when you return.
  • Secure a good quality electric pump. You may be able to rent, purchase or get one free; check out the U.S. Food & Drug Administration’s Breast Pump and Resource website.
  • Consult the Center for Disease Control (CDC) information on Proper Handling and Storage of Human Milk.
  • Read the second article in this series on breastfeeding and returning to work to better understand your rights.

About three weeks before returning to work:

  • Don’t start pumping your milk until you have established a good milk supply. Learn more about how breast milk is made from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA): Women, Infants and Children (WIC) website.
  • Each time, feed your baby first, then pump to increase your milk supply for storage.
  • If your maternity leave is not very long, establishing a milk supply and pumping can be a challenge. See more at the USDA site on low milk supply.
  • About one week before starting work, introduce your baby to breast milk in a bottle or cup. If using a bottle, try the paced bottle feeding method.
  • Try having someone else introduce the bottle. Usually your baby will not take the bottled milk from you, as the nursing/feeding parent.
  • The baby may reject a bottle nipple at first, but tease them by letting them taste the breast milk.
  • Have your baby bottle feed several times before going back to work.
  • If possible, stagger your return to work; start one day a week, then two and so on.

Pumping at work:

  • In the beginning, pump as regularly as your baby would normally nurse at home.
  • Once you become familiar with your body’s production pattern, you can pump on a regular schedule.
  • Expect engorgement the first few days you are back at work. This is a natural body adjustment. Avoid becoming too engorged, though, as this can be painful and create other challenges.
  • Temporarily relieve engorgement by expressing and dumping a little milk, then pump as soon as possible.
  • Resume a regular breastfeeding schedule when you get off work and on your days off. This will ensure your breastfeeding supply by training your body to produce by your pattern.

Some things to expect:

  • Your body will overproduce milk in the beginning, so wear dark clothes and take an extra shirt or two.
  • Regulate your intake of liquids during the day, this can produce more or less milk than usual.
  • Know that your body can react to a crying child or sudden change in temperature, by producing milk unexpectedly.
  • If the breastfeeding pattern becomes too irregular, your body will begin produce less breast milk.
  • Only a baby at the breast will maintain breast milk production. Exclusive pumping may diminish supply.
  • Your body will eventually adapt to your new breastfeeding and pumping pattern.
  • If you decide to exclusively breastfeed at home and not at work, your body will adapt to this change, and produce according to this new pattern.

Remember that, with the right planning, other nursing parents have also found success breastfeeding at work! For additional resources, please visit other health and nutrition sites at Michigan State University Extension, such as the Safe Food = Healthy Babies website.  

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