Pumping at work: what to pack, wear, plan, and expect

For new breastfeeding moms approaching the end of maternity leave, the idea of juggling pumping and going back to work at the same time can feel like a lot to handle. But with a little prep ahead of time, you can totally do it. Let’s break it all down.

Get a pump

This is an obvious first step, but there are a few things to consider when purchasing a pump. First off, it’s important to remember that all health insurance plans cover the cost of a basic breast pump. Each plan differs a little in whether you buy or rent the pump, how long you can keep a rental pump, which models are covered, and when during your pregnancy you can get the pump; ask your insurance provider for the details ahead of time. No one should have to pay out of pocket or forego pumping because of equipment costs.

Beyond the basic pumps, there are a variety of models with features that may add to convenience if you’re able to swing the extra cost (or put it on your registry). There are battery-powered and plug in versions, ones that pump milk directly into freezer-safe bags that fit into special bottles, hands-free versions that fit into a bra, and much, much more. Read reviews and ask friends to find which features make sense for the price and how you’ll be using the pump.

No matter what pump you end up buying, make sure the flange — the funnel-shaped part that goes on the breast — fits easily. This part comes in different sizes for different breast sizes and shapes. If pumping feels painful, or your breast is spilling out of it, or you’re having trouble getting proper suction, consider trying a different flange size to find the right fit. After all, you’ll be using the machine several times a day for months, and it should be as comfortable as possible, and the wrong size flange can be damaging to sensitive nipples.

Start pumping during maternity leave

This allows you plenty of time to get the hang of using the pump before fumbling around with pump parts at the office and gives you a head start on building a backup supply of milk in the freezer. If your leave is 12 weeks long, try to start pumping around week four once or twice a day in addition to feeding. Morning is great time to pump, since our bodies make more milk overnight; try pumping right after your first feeding. The extra milk can be stored in the freezer (six months in a regular kitchen freezer or 12 months in a chest freezer). If you’re able to pump once or twice every day during leave, you’ll have a great stash of your own milk that can help prolong breastfeeding if your supply tapers off or serve as a backup if your pumping schedule gets thrown off during the workday.

Maternity leave is also an ideal time to introduce bottle feeding, maybe one a day, to give your baby a chance to learn that skill before he or she needs to use a bottle while you’re at work. Bottle feeding also gives mom a daily break to do something else while a partner or grandparent feeds the baby.

Pumping and freezing milk weeks before you return to work also gives you a chance to see if your baby will drink your milk after it has been frozen. Some women’s breastmilk contains a higher than normal level of an enzyme called lipase, which helps break down fats so baby can digest the milk. But when there’s too much lipase, after it’s been frozen and thawed it can create a sour taste that some babies refuse. Lipase is not harmful, but the baby may not drink it. This isn’t a common issue, but it does happen and is worth checking before you spend weeks stocking your freezer with milk that won’t be used. After a week or so, thaw a serving of breast milk and see what your baby does. If baby refuses to drink it after successfully bottle feeding with fresh milk, you can scald milk before freezing it to remove that taste.

Pack your pumping bag

Having everything you need for each session makes transitioning between working and pumping much smoother. Here are the essentials (and a few things that are nice to have):

  • The pump and all the parts
  • A bag with plenty of compartments that fits the pump and all the accessories (some pump makers have pump-specific bags designed to fit the machine and the parts, and they’re actually cute and purse-looking)
  • Everything you need to wash the pumping parts. Some options:
    • Dish soap and sponge if you’re going to wash the parts between feedings
    • Bring a few sets pumping parts — one for each time you pump — to avoid having to wash them after each session. Just toss used parts into a Ziplock bag and wash them all when you get home.
    • If you only have one set of parts, some moms put them in a Ziplock and refrigerate between pumping to avoid washing them.
    • There is a special steam bag designed for breast pump parts that can be used to clean and sterilize them in the microwave between feedings or at the end of the day; it’s faster than washing by hand or using the dishwasher, but a little pricey.
  • A pumping bra if you’re going to be hands-free pumping (which allows you to be productive while you’re pumping)
  • Hand sanitizer
  • Nursing cover if you need it
  • Receiving blanket to put on your lap to catch any drips
  • Nursing pads to keep in your bra
  • Nipple cream; many you can apply prior to pumping if you’re sensitive
  • Small opaque bag to put milk in before putting it in a shared work fridge
  • Car charger if you need to charge your pump or pump in the car

Consider your wardrobe

There are some really great nursing tops and dresses by a lot of brands that are work-appropriate for most settings. Shop for a few solid options that you can rotate through without having to do extra laundry to get ready for work. There is also the two-shirt method that makes any top a nursing top. Wear a nursing tank top under scrubs, a uniform, or a regular blouse, then when it’s time to pump, just lift top (which then acts as a little cover), and pump while your tummy is still covered.

Find your spot

Talk to your employer before going back to work and ask them if there is a dedicated spot to pump at work (see the part about knowing your rights below). Identifying where you’ll be pumping lets you plan for it time- and supply-wise and gives you a chance to advocate for a space if there isn’t one.

Some women opt to pump in the car at work or during their commute where they can plug in the pump and zone out to a podcast in a controlled environment. Consider how much privacy you have in the parking area or in traffic (and remember that a hands-free pump is a must if you’re driving).

Schedule time to pump

The goal is to try to pump in intervals that are close to how often your baby is feeding; maybe every three or four hours. Give yourself at least 15-20 minutes for each session. Pumping may go quicker once you get the hang of your routine, but it’s wise to leave a buffer just in case. If your pumping place isn’t near your office, allow a few more minutes to get there and back.

Of course, not every mom works in an office with a schedule she can control. Nurses, realtors, teachers, servers, and others barely find time to eat or pee, let alone pump. Do what you can. If you can only fit in one pumping session and have to rely on a frozen stash of breastmilk or supplement with formula, that is totally OK.

Keep the milk cold

Breast milk can safely stay at room temperature for five to six hours, but beyond that, it needs to be kept cold. A fridge is ideal, or a cooler with a long-lasting ice pack is a good alternative. If your office kitchen has a shared fridge, consider putting milk in an opaque bag so it’s not obviously breast milk. And if you’re prone to forgetting things in the rush to leave work, set an alarm on your phone to remind yourself to grab the milk from the fridge.

Know your rights

Laws governing pumping rights vary state to state. In general, employers are required to allow pumping breaks during the workday, but they are not required to pay you for that time (you may have to clock out to pump). Many states require employers to provide a pumping space that is not a bathroom, and that is adequately furnished and private; it might be a special lactation suite, a vacant room, or a cubicle, or a storage closet. Some states require you to notify your employer if you plan to pump when you return to work. Check the laws in your state to see what rights you have before you go back to work.

Take it one day at a time

With a plan in place and all the gear ready to go, sometimes breastfeeding working moms find the hardest part of pumping at work is that people think you’re not being as productive. Pumping breaks can look like regular breaks, and in a workplace where breaks are rare, resentment can boil up. Co-workers are usually more forgiving at the beginning when the baby is a newborn, but on month seven or eight, you may get an eyeroll or two when you excuse yourself to pump. Stick to your guns anyway. Remember (and even remind people if need be) that your pediatrician and all of the research says this is the best thing you can do for your baby. There may be guilt around taking breaks, especially if someone has to cover your work while you pump, but it’s only for a short time. Cultural attitudes are shifting toward acceptance, and as they do, clear, firm communication with colleagues will go a long way in confidently making pumping part of your everyday work to-do list.  To learn more about your legal rights to pump at work, visit https://www.womenshealth.gov/supporting-nursing-moms-work/what-law-says-about-breastfeeding-and-work.

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