Updated: Dec 16, 2022
“Well, you can’t carry that on once you’re back at work.”
There is a common misconception that once you return to work you must stop breastfeeding. With mothers returning to work after as little as a month or so of maternity leave in the US, pumping breast milk for your babe once you return to work is more common than it is in the UK where maternity leave can be up to twelve months. Employers in the UK are often ill-prepared to welcome mothers back into the workplace as they continue to nurse their little ones even though, “The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) recommends that it's good practice for employers to provide a private, healthy and safe environment for breastfeeding mothers to express and store milk.” Employers are also legally required to carry out a risk assessment to ensure the safety of nursing moms.
When I returned to work after maternity leave, I was expected to be on duty from 7:00am each morning until around 11:00pm each night with two hours of ‘protected time’ off. If it had been difficult to work such hours whilst I was pregnant, it was near impossible to do so with a nine-month-old baby. After struggling to maintain any kind of work/life balance and failing miserably, my health took a downward spiral and I was forced to take time off with postpartum anxiety. When I explained to my GP that my son was waking hourly overnight at the time and would only go back to sleep on the boob, her advice was shocking: “Just go away for the weekend and by the time that you come back, he will be so mad at you that he won’t want to nurse anymore – that’s what I did.” Needless to say, I chose to completely ignore her anecdotal ‘advice’. I share my experiences not to scare you, dear reader, but to encourage you to think carefully about what your working life should look like if you are returning to work whilst you are breastfeeding.
It took the global lockdown and a period of me working reduced hours from home for me to find the perfect balance for our family. I worked five half days a week for a period of several blissful months while the pandemic was in full force and schools remained closed. This working pattern meant that I was able to have a few hours each day where I focussed on something that was just mine - teaching - and it felt wonderful to be able to be present for my son’s naps and bedtimes. Once the lockdown measures eased, finding childcare that suited us was a priority. We settled on a few mornings at nursery and the rest of the time was a patchwork mash-up of care between myself, my fiancé and my mom. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it means that I am able to draw upon my experiences to support you in managing your transition back to work in the best way possible.
Here are my top tips for returning to work as a nursing mom:
1) Be fully present once you are back at work, rather than checking your phone for updates from your childcare provider every ten minutes. This is most certainly easier said than done, but it will make your working day go by quicker and easier. Focusing your attention at work will help you to be more productive and it will also stop the day from dragging. Give yourself permission to not feel guilty about being by your little one’s side morning, noon and night. Assuming that you do not have pre-existing supply issues, your supply will regulate so that you can continue to nurse around your working life if you choose to do so.
2) Be prepared to pump or hand express for comfort if you need to, even if you do not want or need to pump for your baby. Any discomfort or engorgement that you may initially experience will ease after a just few days as your milk supply regulates. Remember that emptying your breasts completely will boost your milk supply, so only do this if it is intentional. If you want to pump enough milk for your baby to drink whilst they are away from you, you will need to pump at the times that you would normally breastfeed your baby. For example, if your little one typically nurses four times a day between the hours of 9:00am and 5:00pm, you should take time to pump or express milk four times a day between those hours too. Store the milk you express in the fridge for use the next day. You do not need a huge freezer stash if you would like to continue to give your baby breast milk in your absence but you will need to pump regularly though to maintain your supply. Check with the NHS or the CDC for the latest guidance on breast milk storage.
Manual pumps are more powerful and effective that electric ones (unless you have a
hospital-grade pump), although they are not hands-free. Hands-free, portable pumps are
increasingly popular because they allow you to pump whilst you are doing other things, but the suction is less powerful. Consider the practicalities of expressing and storing your breast milk at work and discuss these arrangements with your employer before you return.
You may decide that you only want to continue nursing your little one before and after work rather than expressing for them during the time that you are apart. If this is the case, do just that and your breasts will respond to your nursling’s ongoing needs. Remember that milk is your baby’s primary source of nutrition before around twelve months of age. However, you may not necessarily need to express at all if your baby is over six months old, eating solids and drinking enough other fluids (water or formula) in your absence.
3) A common concern for breastfeeding mothers who return to work whilst their baby is still young is that they will not accept a bottle of expressed milk or formula in their absence. It is true that many babies prefer nursing directly from the breast rather than taking a bottle, but thankfully, that need not be a concern. Babies are incredibly instinctive and will not starve themselves. It is possible that your little one will wait until you are absent and they are hungrier than usual before accepting a bottle, but eventually they will. In the highly unlikely event that they do not, they can be fed using a free flow cup or a beaker instead. Be prepared for lots of cluster feeding upon your reunions and possibly some reverse cycling too. Reverse-cycling is when your baby nurses more frequently overnight to make up for the feeds that they have not had from your breasts during the daytime. Again, I recommend breast sleeping as the best technique for coping with reverse-cycling if you want to continue nursing on demand. If you do not wish to continue breastfeeding upon your return to work, see tip number fifty for guidance on parent-lead weaning and night-weaning.
4) Allow yourself time and space to adjust. It may be that you enjoy being back at work more than you realised, or perhaps you feel completely differently about your job now that you are a mother. Whatever feelings arise, give yourself permission to express them openly and honestly with someone that you trust, whether that is in person, online or via voice note. Feelings of guilt and conflict are incredibly common, but it may reassure you to know that learning to trust other caregivers in a safe and loving environment benefits your baby socially and psychologically.
5) Find your at-work-mama-crew with whom you can share the highs and lows of being a working mom. This may mean a slight shift in your former working relationships and that’s ok – it is not a crime to develop new friendships as you evolve as your mother edition. Check in with one another when you reasonably can and be honest about the highs and lows of being a working mom.
6) Allow someone else to do at least some of the night shift (if possible) so that you can get at least four hours of sleep in a row if your babe is more wakeful than sleepy. If this is not possible, I highly recommend breast sleeping – it’s a game changer (see tip number sixteen).
7) Know your rights in the workplace. This extends to everything from time that you may be entitled to in order to breastfeed or pump for your baby during your work day, parental leave and flexible working rights. A quick Google search in your residing country is a great start; talk to your HR department at work too.
8) Have a ritual for leaving and returning. It can be tempting to sneak away from your tiny tot during departures to avoid causing tears or a tantrum, but psychologically speaking this is an unhealthy habit to fall into. Goodbyes are a normal, healthy part of everyday life and the sooner that your babe learns that goodbyes are just that, the better. My son continued to find departures stressful until he was around two years old. Even then he struggled unless he had been pre-warned about them and given an opportunity to express his frustrations loudly and clearly before they happened. Given this opportunity to vent his frustrations, he would generally wave happily to the departing party, even when it was me. Figure out what works best for your family and if in doubt, I find that starting with communication, even with a very young baby, is a great place to begin.
9) Drink your baby in with reckless abandon upon your reunions. Even if it is only for fifteen minutes before their bedtime, give yourself and them the gift of one-to-one focussed time when you kiss and cuddle and nurse your bundle of love. The rush of oxytocin that you both feel will put even the toughest day at work into perspective (UvnäsMoberg et al., 2020). Once more, allow yourself to be fully present and with them for an undisturbed period of time if possible. The quality of the time that you spend together matters so much more than the quantity.
10) Discuss the process of returning to work with your partner and/or your wider support network. I am not just talking about the logistics of transporting your babe(s) to childcare providers. Express any fears, concerns or excitement that you may have honestly and at a time when they can take them in and understand them. Ask them about their hopes and concerns. Make a point to review your situation regularly and tweak it as necessary. It could be that a shift in one or both of your working patterns could make life much happier for the whole family. Speaking from experience, if you have a partner, I highly recommend that you both keep an open mind about what your work/life balance will look like whilst you have a young family.
Finally, give yourself permission to wean once you return to work or at any point if you feel it is the right choice for you and your family. Download my weaning guide for support to do this gently & with love, here: www.thebreastfeedingmentor.com/weaning
This article was adapted from my debut book, ‘ Self Care: The Breastfeeding Edition (50 Practical Evidence-Based Tips for Nursing Moms)’ - available on Amazon Kindle or at www.thebreastfeedingmentor.com/book