Oil and water: How to go back to work while still breastfeeding

Are you about to go back to work, but want to maintain breastfeeding? Are you wondering how you’re going to manage it all? Are you scared you might have to give up breastfeeding just because of your day job?

Don’t worry! I’ve got you covered. I successfully breastfed my daughter for a year and a half while maintaining my day job, and I know you can, too! In this article, I’m giving you all the info you need to make a successful transition.

Pause for the necessary disclaimer: My advice on this blog should never replace that of a medical professional. Please ask your family doctor or pediatrician for their medical opinion.

Pour yourself some café au lait and let’s get pumped about breastfeeding, working mamas!

how to juggle work with breastfeeding

Prepare to go back to work while still breastfeeding

Since you plan on breastfeeding your baby while keeping your day job, more power to you! This isn’t something you can just wing, though. You need to carefully prepare beforehand.

Determine when to go back to work

First, determine when to go back to work. Regulations in your country as well as your family budget will definitely weigh in your decision.

French law guarantees 16 weeks of paid maternity leave, and you can choose to take an additional parental leave (partial or full) immediately following this 16-week period. I did the partial leave, which allowed me to negotiate with my boss a part-time schedule. It made it possible for me to continue breastfeeding without having to pump at work at all!

US law guarantees 12 weeks of unpaid maternity leave, but obviously you don’t need to take all 12 weeks if you don’t want to or can’t afford it. If possible, I strongly suggest taking at least 6 weeks off after your baby is born if you plan to breastfeed exclusively for the first few months or more. We’ll discuss the reasons for this below.

Establish your natural milk supply

There is a common misperception that it takes 6 weeks to establish a breast milk supply. This myth probably comes from well-meaning people who urge mamas experiencing trouble with breastfeeding to just “give it more time.”

The actual reason you should give yourself a solid 6 weeks to establish breastfeeding is to give your baby enough time to learn how to drink from your breast. Yes, the instinct to suckle is, well, an instinct. But babies do actually have to practice and learn how to get that milk out!

At about 6 weeks old, babies are much less prone to develop nipple confusion if you start to introduce bottle feeding.

Hold on. What does bottle feeding have to do with anything? This is a post about breastfeeding…

Don’t forget, if you go back to work, you’ll likely be away from your breastfeeding baby all day. What you’re going to need to do is establish an advance supply of breast milk, and your baby’s caregiver will then feed it through a bottle.

Feeding from a bottle is a completely different technique for babies (it’s actually much easier than breastfeeding). Therefore, you want to maximize your chances for successful breastfeeding by giving your baby 6 weeks to learn the ropes.

Your breast milk supply will thusly establish itself naturally!

How much milk does a baby need, anyway?

Breastfeeding should be done on demand. You only offer the breast to your baby in response to their needs (rooting, crying, etc.).

No one really knows how much breast milk your baby is taking in per feeding. You can count the number of feedings per day (generally, it’s 8-12 feedings per 24 hours).

The health care system in your country will give recommendations for the amount of milk a baby needs. What I have found very interesting is that not all countries agree with each other. The US recommends huge amounts of milk compared to France, which in turn recommends more than Germany, for example.

As long as your baby is putting on weight, she is probably getting enough milk. But since no one can really measure how much breast milk each particular baby needs, the best thing to do is to simply start counting the frequency of feedings. Make a little journal of each time your baby feeds. It will give you a good idea for when you need to start pumping.

When to start pumping

I waited 6 weeks before I started pumping my breast milk. My goal, as I mentioned above, was for my baby to avoid nipple confusion.

That said, I knew I still had another 4 weeks before I had to return to work. So, I had a month to build up my supply of breast milk in advance.

That’s not going to be possible for everybody. (Again, please speak to a trusted medical professional for their opinion based on your particular situation.) Just know that there is a solution for everything. Even if you start pumping the day you start your job again, so you don’t have an advance supply, you can still ask your baby’s caregiver to give formula to buy yourself some time.

Get pumping and bottle feeding equipment

bottle feeding

To get yourself all set up and ready to establish and maintain that advance supply of breast milk, you’re going to need to equip yourself!

Don’t just panic-buy the first pump you see.

Definitely do some research about the different types of pumps available.  Ask your doctor and your fellow breastfeeding friends for their recommendations. My midwife gave me great advice based on the feedback from her patients.

Also look into the availability of breast pumps in your country.

You should always buy your own shields, valves and membranes—basically any piece of equipment that will come into contact with your milk. In France, we can rent the actual electric pump at the pharmacy or through an online marketplace, because buying this part can be quite expensive.

There’s also the option of a simple manual breast pump. It takes more effort on your part, and I wouldn’t recommend it for use at work. But it IS a cheaper option.

Personally, I had both an electric pump for everyday and I bought a manual one for travel.

One more thing to consider about the pump you buy for work: try to pick the most silent model available! You’d be surprised at how loud these things are.

Don’t forget the accessories.

If your pump doesn’t come with a cool bag and some ice packs, you’re going to want to purchase some.

Some pumps also come with their own bottles and synthetic nipples for convenience—pump directly into the bottle, pop on the nipple, and you’re ready to bottle feed!

But not all synthetic nipples are alike. Sometimes your baby will not want to take the synthetic nipple. In that case, experiment with different brands.

Lastly, you need some freezer bags that are specifically for storing breast milk.

Make a plan for pumping at work

Talk to your boss about coordinating your pumping schedule with your work responsibilities. You’ll need to tell your boss how many times during your workday that you need to pump. Your company will need to provide you with a quiet place to pump other than a bathroom.

Get on a breastfeeding schedule for going back to work

If you have taken my advice above, you have already determined the frequency of feedings your baby usually needs per 24 hours. To make an advance supply of breast milk, you need to increase this number by beginning to pump between your baby’s regular feedings.

Remember, breast milk works on supply and demand. Pumping in addition to your regular feedings will naturally increase your supply! Your brain can’t tell the difference between a breast pump and a suckling baby, so your body will adjust to the new demand in no time.

breastfeeding in nursery

Begin before going back to work

Give yourself as much time as you can to get on a pumping schedule before going back to work. Make the transition easier on yourself!

Before I went back to work officially, I practiced by structuring our day as though I were already back at work. I continued to pump in between feedings to build up a supply. I got C comfortable with being away from me by leaving her with my friend for a few hours. We introduced the bottle to my daughter (remember, this was already past the 6-week mark).

By the time I started back at work, I was already in a groove with pumping!

Establish your pumped milk supply

To simulate a feeding, I pumped each side for around 10 minutes. Save time by pumping both sides at once, or by pumping one side while your baby feeds on the other. Personally, I felt this was a bit awkward, so I always did one side at a time.

I pumped about once every 4 hours, and remember, in between was a feeding. So it would go something like this:

  • 8am feed
  • 10am pump
  • 12pm feed
  • 2pm pump
  • 4pm feed
  • 6pm pump
  • 8pm feed
  • 10pm pump

You can see that makes only 4 feeds per day. What happened to 8-12 feedings per 24 hours? Well, by this time, C was a little older and had naturally reduced the frequency of her feedings. Also, I am sure she still woke in the night a couple of times for some milk!

Storage of breast milk

As soon as you are done expressing, store the milk in the fridge in an airtight container specifically for breast milk. As you pump throughout the day, keep putting your expressed milk away in the fridge in its own container. At the end of the day, once it has all cooled down to the same temperature, you can combine it. Pour it all together into a freezer bag specifically designed for breast milk.

It’s best to use it within 6 months, but up to 12 months is acceptable, too. To use it, defrost in the fridge overnight. Then it can be used up within 24 hours.

Coordinate between childcare and work

As I already mentioned, it’s a good idea to let your employer know of your plan to pump at work.

You also need to tell your childcare provider that you want them to give your baby your breast milk instead of formula. They need to know in advance so they can properly store your bottled milk onsite.

Depending on geography, you may even be able to work out a way to leave work in order to breastfeed your baby directly. Again, talk to your childcare to coordinate with them, too.

Luckily, my situation allowed me to breastfeed C at my friend’s apartment. I then left C with my friend to go to work, which was only a 2-minute walk away! I didn’t even have to pump at work on a normal day, but pumped immediately when I got home. By that time, Papa had already picked up C, given her a bottle of my breast milk, and put her to bed.

Creative solutions for breastfeeding and going back to work

As we say in French, “Il n’y a pas des problèmes, il y a que des solutions.”

There are no problems. Only solutions.

baby breastfeeding

Combine breast milk and formula

I thought breastfeeding was all or nothing. Either you fed your baby breast milk or you fed them formula. But what I didn’t know was: you can combine breast milk and formula.

Yes. Not only can you feed from the breast at certain times of the day, and bottle feed with formula at other times, but you can also physically combine expressed breast milk with formula. I just think these possibilities are so cool and allow you to be flexible. Try different things and see what works!

Despite what they say, breast is not best. FED is best. However you can feed your baby, DO THAT.

Plan for papa to take over after work

I will admit, as annoying as pumping was, a huge draw for me was involving Papa more in caring for our baby. Papa fully supported my decision to breastfeed, but it left him without much to do those first few months.

Enter pumping. Papa could now feed C. Okay, admittedly, in the beginning, it just left me time for more… pumping! But eventually the routine became easier. Papa felt helpful, and it was an easy way for him to connect with his daughter.

Increase your breast milk supply

If you’re worried (like we all are!) about your breast milk supply, I have a few more tips for you.

First, I want to tell you that it’s normal to worry that your supply is dwindling because your boobs don’t feel like watermelons anymore. Trust me, there’s still milk in there.

Second, it’s normal to feel like your supply dropped off once your period comes back. Don’t worry. You still have enough milk for your baby.

Third, make every effort to stick to your pumping schedule. But if you fall off the wagon, it’s not going to make a dent in the supply immediately. Don’t throw yourself for a guilt trip. It’s okay to miss a pumping session once in a while.

If you still want to increase your supply, try these tips:

  • Pump more often.
  • Pump near your baby or the next best thing (a photo, a lovey with your baby’s scent).
  • Drink fennel tea.

Give it a shot

This isn’t a post all about how great breastfeeding is, or how breastfeeding mamas are somehow saints. I know how it feels to want to succeed so badly at breastfeeding and feeling like you might “fail.” Good for you for already trying.

I sound sure of myself writing this article, but remember this is all in hindsight. At the time, I was SUPER worried that work was going to sabotage my plan to breastfeed C.

How did you manage to go back to work and still breastfeed? What challenges did you face? What worked best for you? If any of my tips helped you, please let me know!

working mama's guide to breastfeeding

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