With the right gear and the following tips, you’ll be a pro in no time.
We include products we think are useful for our readers. If you buy through links on this page, we may earn a small commission. Here’s our process.
You’ve had your baby, you’ve started to find your footing in the fourth trimester, and now, as one journey ends, another begins: heading back to work.
Sometimes, returning to work after birth can feel equally — or more — daunting than those initial weeks of handling your tiny human. It’s no wonder why: You’re facing a complex web of emotions, logistics, and, for many, office politics.
During my first year postpartum, I dealt with a steady stream of passive-aggressive questioning from managers about my pumping habits. I forfeited lunch and worked several extra hours each night to make up for the three scheduled 30-minute pump sessions in my day.
Nevertheless, the questions persisted month over month: Wouldn’t formula be easier? Couldn’t I stay in the meeting just a little longer and pump later? Did I really have to pump that much?
I was completely taken off-guard, given that I worked for a predominantly female company with a (rarefied) paid leave policy. That experience is one of the many reasons I became a postpartum advocate. Because pumping even in the best circumstances can be a challenge, and many birth parents face situations far more difficult than mine.
“I worked as an adjunct and my advice would be to advocate for pumping space/time,” says mother Johannah H. “I did not, so I pumped in the bathroom, but it was in an old Boston building so there were no outlets, and I had a secondhand pump that didn’t do much with battery power, so I ended up using a manual pump during class breaks. In a bathroom stall. It was pretty depressing.”
Johannah’s story is not uncommon. I’ve encountered many breastfeeding parents who were pointed in the direction of the bathroom to pump. Nuh-uh. Nope. Don’t settle for that.
When pumping at work, there are two critical pieces of information you need to know: 1) You have a right to pump at work and be provided breaks to do so. 2) You have a right to pump in a private space that is not a bathroom. Here’s the law in full:
“The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (P.L. 111-148, known as the “Affordable Care Act”) amended section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) to require employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.” Employers are also required to provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” See 29 U.S.C. 207(r).”
Individual states may have additional laws, but they can only enhance — not supersede — the terms of the ACA as stated above. Read the full details here.
To make sure your workplace is fully aware of its responsibility to you, I also recommend reading and sharing this resource from the Office on Women’s Health with your manager(s). You may also want to share The Business Case for Breastfeeding, which outlines why providing lactation support is actually beneficial to employers.
Taking the time to speak with co-workers or supervisors (or the human resources department) even before your baby arrives can help to smooth the transition. You can establish clear expectations in advance and address any concerns about your productivity or resources available to you.
Unless you’ve been an exclusive pumper from the start or had to pump for medical reasons, now is the time to get your gear. The sooner the better, as you may find it helpful to introduce bottles with expressed milk before heading back to work to prevent nipple confusion or nipple preference.
If you’re exclusively breastfeeding, it’s not recommended to introduce a bottle before baby is 4 weeks old, but between 4 to 6 weeks seems to be a good time to start.
Most importantly, you’ll need a portable breast pump. Insurance covers them for the most part, though it will be a basic model, with select choices. For something high-tech, like the Willow or BabyBuddha, you’ll have to pay out of pocket.
If your budget allows, parent Lisa S. had a savvy idea for her back-to-work transition: two pumps. “One for home and one for work,” she says. “Having less to carry every day — only one small insulated bag with the day’s pumped milk! — felt like a real luxury at a time where I felt as if I was barely able to meet my baby’s needs, and certainly did not feel I was adequately addressing my own.”
The right flange
Attached to the main pump unit will be the actual breast pump, which is fitted with a flange (aka the plastic funnel-like thing that lays over your nipple). It’s critical that you find the right flange for you.
Size matters! Too big, and you won’t pull as much milk as possible from the breast. Too small, and you’ll experience friction which can cause soreness and possibly microtears, which are a leading cause of mastitis.
The breast pump manufacturer Aeroflow has very helpful infographics on flanges and sizing.
Schlepping everything can be difficult, especially if you commute on public transportation. That’s where a pump bag or backpack comes in.
I know, I know, another thing to buy. But it really does make life easier.
Sarah Wells, Banana Fish, Dr. Brown’s, Skip Hop, Land, and Kaylaa all are popular brands offering bags with useful features. Ultimately, it’ll come down to personal preference, which pump you are carrying (some brands fit better with certain bags), and the weight of the bag you’re willing to tote.
What goes in your bag:
- milk storage bags or bottles (Lansinoh and Medela are dependable brands)
- a portable cooler to take your milk home with you (I found the Medela cooler and transport set particularly useful)
- sanitizing wipes or sanitizing spray if access to running water is limited
- a hands-free nursing bra
- a traveling dryer rack for your desk
- a car power adapter if you need to pump in the car or while driving
Last, don’t forget labels and/or a Sharpie to write the date on your milk. No matter how good your memory is, trust me, you will lose track.
Now that you are packed and prepared, make sure your workplace is, too. Namely: the office fridge.
“While we had a designated room, I didn’t really have any place to store [my milk] outside of a very small shared refrigerator,” shares Brandy G. Trying to cram breast milk in next to the office creamer was the final straw for an exhausting situation. “I was already mentally checked out, so I just stopped.”
Timing is everything when you’re back at work. A consistent pump schedule, with limited sessions, will maximize your production and ensure you pump regularly (which, in the long run, also maximizes production).
“The best advice I got when I returned to work as a working/nursing/pumping mom was to block my pumping times in my calendar as if they were meetings. If I didn’t block off the time it would be eaten up by other things. I needed to prioritize it so others would as well,” says Jamie Beth C.
Her insight is absolutely golden. Own your calendar if you can!
That said, it’s not always possible. For new television journalist Stacey L., there was no consistency. She had to pump in the car, empty offices, and on sets. “The biggest challenge was the timing. Because I was in uncomfortable settings, I felt like I was in a rush to pump and get it done, so I wasn’t getting as much milk as I would have in the comfort of my own home. But you do what you have to do!”
Whenever and wherever you’re pumping, there are two rules I’m going to give you to maximize milk output:
- Do not watch to see how much milk you’re making.
- Time yourself. Allot 15 minutes to each session. Only then start watching. If there is no new milk expressed in two pump cycles, you’re done.
Start on the lowest setting and gently increase to a comfortable speed. Pumping, while inherently awkward, should not be painful. If you notice you’re consistently producing more from one side, don’t fret. It’s normal and just one of those common body quirks.
Letting go of stress and getting comfortable will make for a better session (which is one of the reasons a designated pumping area and schedule is so important). You can also try the following, which are as simple as it gets.
- Hydrate. Don’t overdo it, but aim for four extra 8-ounce servings of water a day.
- Bring a photo. Get out those baby pics! Scroll on your phone or go old-school and tape up printed photos of your cutie wherever you pump. It will help you relax (a biggie) and boost prolactin.
- Massage your breasts. Massaging your chest before and during pumping has been found to stimulate milk production. Check out this high-level guide on how to do it. And here’s a helpful video so you can see it in action.
- Carry a onesie. Our sense of smell is potent; you are wired to love your baby’s smell. While a worn (but not gross!) onesie won’t be the same as holding your little one to breastfeed, the smell may increase your oxytocin levels, which can help relax you and allow milk to flow freely.
- Warm it up. You can use a warm compress on your neck and/or breasts to help relax and prepare. You may also want to warm your pump flanges before use.
As I mentioned earlier, keeping tabs on everything can be tough. So, here’s the drill to ensure your precious pumped milk stays safe to use
- Save milk in BPA- and BPS-free breast milk storage bags or storage bottles.
- Have a Sharpie to write the date on everything.
- Save milk in increments that your baby will eat in one sitting.
- Keep these storage guidelines handy:
- Room temperature (up to 77℉/25°C) milk that’s been pumped and left out: Use within 4 hours.
- Refrigerated (40℉/4°C) milk: Use within 4 days.
- Freezer (0℉/-18°C): Use within 6 months; up to 12 months is acceptable.
- Thawed and refrigerated: Use within 24 hours — never refreeze after thawing!
- Leftover from a feeding: Use within 2 hours after finishing a feeding.
Pumping while traveling
If your work involves travel, especially air travel, my heart goes out to you. I’ve done it and it requires a next-level amount of preparation and patience.
Here are a few basics to help you on your way. First, familiarize yourself with the TSA guidelines for transporting milk and pumping supplies.
Then, map out available Mamava pods. It is a brilliant company that provides private, secure pumping pods in airports.
Lastly, send your milk packing. Milk Stork makes shipping expressed milk home effortless. And while it is quite costly, here’s a radical idea: Expense it.
After all, if the marketing team can have wine with every company dinner, you sure as heck should be able to secure milk for your beautiful babe at home. Right? Right.