• how to pump - return to work
  • Pumping at work hacks
  • Depending on how you go, there will be different patterns that you end up following. Here are a few routines that mums told us about, what worked best for them.
  • Working and not working

Returning to work is a big milestone for many women. In the eyes of many of your colleagues, you may not have changed much – you were gone, now you’re back. In your eyes, there have been more fundamental changes.

Whether you’re itching to get back to work, reluctant or somewhere in between, there is no doubt some more preparation is required if you want to keep providing breast milk for your baby.

Returning to work has been cited as one common reason for stopping breastfeeding.

There are quite a few studies that identify work policies (i.e lack of parental leave and lactation programs) as reasons for women stopping breastfeeding[1], but a particularly interesting one was run in 2019[2], which looked at the experience of women returning to work or study, in this case an Australian university campus, while breastfeeding.

The women in their study spoke about four themes. First, the work environment and relationships directly affected their experience (surprise surprise!). Second, the need for private and safe places to pump, and to store breast milk. Third, how they felt self-conscious and unprofessional, and guilty for taking time to breastfeed or pump. Fourth, how women realised they needed to build a thick skin to judgment from others.

In this section, we look at the options you have for pumping and feeding, including some practical tips from other women who’ve been there.

Why pump at work

Remember that your supply will adjust to how much you are feeding or expressing. If you are dropping feeds or pumps because you’re now returning to work, then you are likely to reduce your supply. Pumping at work is an option to keep your supply up enough to feed your baby breast milk.

If you are opting to reduce your supply, try to make your change gradual to allow your body time to adjust, as a sudden drop in feeding or pumping sessions can sometimes risk blocked ducts or mastitis.

Pumping options at work

Returning to work is not just To Pump or Not to Pump. Like most things in life, the options are on a spectrum. Each depends on the age and health of your baby, your feeding situation already, and what most suits you, your family and your type of work. 

Breastfeeding with no pumping……..breastfeeding with pumping……...Formula / other milk

Here are some options women we’ve spoken with have chosen when they returned to work:

  • Breastfeed at work by having someone bring your baby in.
  • Pump at work, and breastfeed when you’re with your baby
  • Pump at work and at home
  • Supplement any of the above with formula or cow’s milk (depending on age)

It may take a while to figure out what works best for you. It will depend on you, your baby, and your work and living situation. 

Pump schedule at work

  • how to pump - schedule – work
  • just enough for first day + emergency spill – “Try to keep milk on a one in – one out cycle. Women are tempted to fill their freezer with expressed milk before returning to work, but are then more likely to neglect pumping on a busy work day, potentially reducing their supply or risking blocked ducts or mastitis.  Aim to pump enough each day for your baby to drink on your next work day.  For example, if your baby drinks 2x 100mL bottles during the day on Monday, aim to pump 200mL that day.  That milk is then left for your baby to drink on Tuesday, and so on.  Ideally you would do this at equally spaced intervals (eg. Every 3 hours), but the volume pumped is more important if this is not manageable.”
  • Feed the baby not the freezer – this will save you mental energy "Feed the baby ... not the freezer." It's hard to feed a newborn and that newborn's future self in 6 months by at breast feeds and pumping for frozen stash. What you pump on Monday at work should be given on Tuesday -- what you pump on Tuesday is given on Wednesday -- and on and on. Fresh milk has more vitamins and anti-infection properties than frozen milk anyway. And many babies refuse frozen milk and you've wasted a whole lot of time! (and you might have high levels of lipase too!) Stay off the #frozenMilkTreadmill .... which is a time sink and time waster. It's when you have made this huge stash and feel obligated to use it and so you rotate some of it into the mix with your fresh. But then every single day some of your fresh milk has to be frozen (thus the treadmill.....). It adds about 20 minutes to each side of your day to coordinate labelling, thawing, freezing, transferring milk with ZERO benefit to the baby. That's 3.5 hours of time per work week WASTED that you could be staring at your gorgeous infant or binge watching a show or going on a date night with your partner.
  • Most women feel a powerful nesting need to stockpile frozen milk in crazy quantities before returning to work. myth of the frozen stash and how it decreases milk supply. When you find your supply is going down and you reach for frozen stash to top off baby - then you aren't getting the root of why your supply is down -- you can't get your body to make more -- you are probably giving baby too much -- you may create a breast refuser because they will need to be topped off even when they are at the breast!! You need about 2 workday hours' worth of frozen milk for emergencies and spills (calculated at 1-1.25 ounces per hour), but more than that is unnecessary and may ultimately lower your supply if you use it to compensate for less pumped at work. We recommend a modest freezer stash and embrace #EXACTproducing ! You will skip pump sessions at work if you have a large freezer stash. You will be up pumping in the middle of the night when your baby is sleeping when you have to maintain oversupply that you created to make the giant freezer stash. You risk getting recurrent plugged ducts and mastitis from oversupply created on maternity leave that can't be emptied at same rate when back at paid work. You steal the joy of your precious maternity leave time making the freezer stash. And hopefully you aren't actually stealing milk from your baby growing in front of you! We see "freezer theft" as a cause for a slow growing infant.
  • Watch its. Irregular pumping can cause pain or discomfort as . One study from Hong Kong[3] suggested that irregular breast emptying can cause milk stasis. They mentioned women who were working, may have stopped pumping on weekends. We haven’t been able to find any particular studies on this though.

Negotiating your conditions

Setting a schedule

Like most things in parenthood, there’s organising to do, and a routine to settle on. You may want to breastfeed on your days off, and pump on your days at work. Ideally, you would be able to pump every few hours at work (morning, lunch and afternoon), bring the milk home, and provide it for your baby the next day. In terms of time to pump, most women can finish pumping between 15 to 30 minutes, plus 5 minutes either side to set up and clean up.

Sticking to your schedule

Everybody’s work situation is different, but here’s what we’ve seen work well:

  • block out your pumping times in your calendar
  • set expectations that you will not be available at those times
  • leave meetings or sessions on time, even if they’re running over
  • educate your colleagues and organisation about why you’re pumping and how it works. Of course, you don’t have to explain yourself, but sometimes a bit of education can make all the difference to helping others empathise with your situation.
  • Set a reminder or a routine to remember to bring your pump bag to work and collect it before you go home. You don’t want to forget it!

Your ideal pumping schedule can fly out the window as the working day gets away from you. Many women find  

Negotiating pumping room + time

It’s not just on you though. Australian law requires your workplace to accept your request for breaks to pump[4]. [what do they say about places to pump?].

If you’re in a position to negotiate, here are some other items to try to include:

  • Dignified place to pump, that is quiet, dedicated for pumping, and has a lockable door, fridge, sink, drying rack and storage.
  • More than one dedicated room, so you don’t have to awkwardly share with a workmate. You may find that you need space and mental calmness to get a letdown and having a workmate next to you can make this awkward and difficult.
  • Pump itself. Many workplaces in the United States provide the pump itself, so that mothers only need to bring in a flange set rather than lugging the pump back and forth.
  • Reduced or extra expenses for travel. Some jobs are more travel-heavy or travel-incentivised (a.k.a better jobs go to people who travel) than others. Try to negotiate other options for travel, or even for expenses for your partner or a carer to join you and your baby.
  • On-site childcare. Why not go for broke, and advocate for childcare in the office. That way you can duck in to see your baby and feed if that’s what you would prefer.

Mamava, is a US-based company that advocates for better conditions for women who pump at work, airports and public venues. They have scripts that you could use to help start the conversation with your employer. See here.

What to put in your pump bag  

Just like when you’re pumping at home, it pays to be organised. Here’s what we recommend to put in your pump bag.

[annotated diagram with:

  • Pump
  • Parts – extra bills
  • Accessories – cushions, pumping bra, breast pads
  • Bag for clean parts + bag for dirty
  • Bottles x 2
  • Scrubber, detergent (if you need)
  • Snacks
  • Spare top
  • Water bottle
  • Ice block (optional)
  • It may help you with letdown to have a photo of your baby or something that reminds you of them.

If you can keep it compact enough, you can pop the whole thing in the work fridge, and you don’t have to separate anything during the day (high chance of losing things). 

Why is the ice block options? Some women use freezer bags with ice blocks to store their pump gear and bottles between sessions, reducing the need to use the work fridge. 

How to give pumped milk at daycare

  • “Daycare centers generally follow formula rules. Fighting this is often not possible. One of the many reasons to send smaller frequent bottles instead of larger less frequent ones is to avoid waste of leftovers. Many daycares dump milk after one hour, just like formula.
  • some daycares will put leftovers back in the fridge "so you can see how much" and let you take them home to deal with (ie repackage)-outside of day care (in home, nanny, etc) it's generally ok to leave warmed milk (or milk taken out of the fridge) at room temp for 4-6 hours to reoffer if bottle is not finished.
  • Also generally reasonable to put leftovers in the fridge to use the next feed/next day (since my kids are in daycare MWF only and we don't ever do bottles when I am home sometimes my leftovers go 48 hours and back to daycare, I have never had a problem with this, only fresh milk used for this, not frozen, if there's previously frozen milk leftover I let her drink on the way home if she wants)”

How to pump and stay mentally well

It’s not just pumping that’s changed

It’s important to acknowledge that preparing for pumping at work is just one of a set of changes that often happen at the same time. You might be also sending your baby off to childcare for the first time, or you might be transitioning them from milk to solids, or you may be adjusting to a new role at work (with less time to do it). We’re focusing on pumping here, to try to simplify that for you, and allow you to deal with the other challenges.

Find support

Hopefully, you’re not the first woman to pump at your workplace. If you aren’t, then try to find other women who can help you with setup and tips, and even normalise pumping at work. There’s usually a bit of a sisterhood in workplaces of women with kids, that you might not have noticed before you had them. Build that solidarity – you’re going to need it, and want to offer it to women coming after you. 

  • How to make pumping feel good at work
  • Validating the emotional side (being away from baby)
  • Adjusting to change
  • Self love/care tactics
  • Sometimes the workmates haven’t realised that you’ve changed. Maybe you haven’t changed. Parental leave / shared workload

Know how to hand-express

  • “It’s a good idea to know how to hand express – if you get really stuck without your pump and full breasts you will be able to hand express into a clean container for comfort.”

Lose the guilt

If you’re pumping three times a day at work, even if you’re hyper-efficient (30 minutes from setup to cleanup), you will need 1.5 hours each day to pump. If you have any control or influence over your workload, remember to include this time in your planning. Try not to succumb to the feelings of guilt for “missing” those hours of work. Chances are you’ve worked your guts out to this point, this is just a brief phase in your working life, and your employer should be supporting you through it.

If it helps, you’re not alone in this feeling. One of the common themes from that study we mentioned earlier, was that women felt guilty about taking time out to feed. Here’s some quotes from two women in their study.

“I actually used to take my computer into the room and work at the same time, because I had a hands-free pump and would literally do my emails and things at that same time. It turned out, I ended up doing that same habit [using pump while working] here and I couldn't produce enough milk. My milk supply slowed up and I couldn't feed anymore for that lunchtime feed that I was doing. It was difficult, but I think it's just one of those things.”

“Even though they say that you can have a lactation break, the work load doesn't reduce and you're expected to answer the phone or be on emails . . . I would stay back to finish a task or something or work from home to finish off what I needed to do. Because if you don't give it 110% like everybody else. . . you're letting the team down”

Common problems

Sometimes you encounter off-the-cuff comments or even friction with co-workers, clients, customers or stakeholders about your pumping, feeding and change in how you work. While you can’t control their actions, you can control your response.

Here are some tips that might help if you find yourself in a situation that is frustrating or uncomfortable. 

  • Remember that you don’t have to explain yourself. Australian law supports you to pump at work.
  • Remember that squeaky wheels don’t represent the opinion of everyone at work. There will be people who are quieter who support you and what you are doing.
  • Remember that we still are not in a society where women are fully and equally supported to work, and that what you are doing is making a small change for the women who come after you.
  • Remember that everybody was a baby once, and somebody looked after them. Even the person or organisation giving you grief.
  • Remember that how you feel is valid. You’re not being sensitive or silly, and that gaslighting is a real thing.

Sometimes, if you have the mental energy for it, you can engage and educate those folks who you’re struggling with.

Ask them why they made a particular comment, try to delve into what they know and don’t know about pumping or caring for babies. Often, they have no idea what they have said or done has affected you and are deeply upset and embarrassed at making you feel frustrated or uncomfortable.

This is a very high-road approach, and it may not be the right one for you, the people you’re working with or the organisation you’re working in.