Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Leigh Anne O’Connor, New York, NY, USA
Photo: Chantal Jura
Employment outside the home is one of the biggest barriers to breastfeeding. Is working when breastfeeding even possible?
Yes. But there are strategies and lifestyle decisions to consider.
Working & breastfeeding
I never met Kerry in person. We had one of those LLL Leader-mom phone relationships. Kerry initially called me with a few basic questions about breastfeeding her newborn. She then reached out to me when she was going to start working full time. She was having trouble pumping enough milk for her baby while she was away. I asked if it was possible for her to visit her baby during the day. We live in New York, NY. Kerry’s home was two subway stops away from her office, about a mile away.
Every Monday through Friday, Kerry hopped on the train during her lunch break. She had communicated with her nanny that she was on the way and that she would be nursing her baby soon.
This worked for Kerry and her baby as she had planned this in advance. Kerry communicated with her employer that she would take her lunch break out of the office. She communicated with her caregiver not to feed the baby a bottle at lunch.
Kerry was able to provide the milk her baby needed at other times when she wasn’t there by pumping while at work and at home in between nursing.
Employment outside the home is one of the biggest barriers to breastfeeding, particularly in the United States. Does that mean it is impossible? No. But there are strategies and lifestyle decisions to consider.
What do employed moms need?
- Sufficient maternity leave duration
- Time to pump
- Quality pumps
- Support from family and caregivers
- Support from employer
- Consistent information
- Balancing home and work life
Tina, an attorney, negotiated her maternity leave as well as her pumping schedule while she was pregnant and still working. She noticed that many of her colleagues returned to grueling hours and were not breastfeeding when they returned to work. Tina laid out a plan for her firm and told them what she needed. This communication helped both Tina and her employer. They had never had a mother continue breastfeeding when she was back at work. Tina changed the culture of her firm. Some of those moms saw her as a champion and when they had a second baby they too had more success in breastfeeding.
Mothers are often told they need to sleep train their babies and that they need to have their baby sleep in a separate room. If a baby sleeps for 12 hours and the mom is gone for nine hours that leaves three hours a day for them to be together. What is a mom to do?
Stacy, a physician, nursed her baby and got through her residency by keeping her baby in bed with her, despite criticism from her community. She was gone for 12 hours at a time. “How else would I get to know my baby?” she asked with delight.
Return to work
Unfortunately in the US standard maternity leave is only 12 weeks. Sometimes moms will negotiate for more. Others will spread it out. For example, Lisa, a bookkeeper, returned to work at nine weeks for two days a week. It was early but it gave her an easier transition. She felt this allowed her to build up to five days a week slowly rather than being home full time and then suddenly being gone all week.
Similarly, some moms who do need to return full time will have their first day back to work on a Thursday (if she works Monday through Friday) making this first “week” away a short one.
I am frequently contacted by mothers of older babies of about three or four months of age. Breastfeeding was going well for the first two or three weeks back to work, but now mother’s milk supply is faltering and she cannot keep up. She is pumping but the baby is flying through her stash.
Sometimes moms nurse and pump while on their maternity leave and put themselves into an oversupply. They stockpile great volumes of milk and then when they head back to the office they rely on that stash. Even if they are pumping at work they may not be pumping as much as the baby is consuming. Then suddenly there is no more stash and the mom now has a low milk supply.
For some moms they are really not able to pump at work for various reasons and pumping during maternity leave is essential. For a mother in this situation it is important to nurse as much as possible when she and her baby are together. And she can add some pumping sessions at home in between nursings.
For many moms who are able to pump at work they can enjoy the maternity leave and work on building a good supply that meets the needs of her baby. Then as they transition back to being away at work, they can nurse the baby as much as possible when they are together.
To keep up with the baby’s appetite and to reduce the need for more bottles and more pumping, a mom can nurse her baby as the last thing she does before they part ways—either at the day care center or with the caregiver. She can then pump first thing when she gets to work to have one pumping session done. Then pump one or two more times during her workday. Then as she reunites with her baby, the first thing she does is sit and nurse him. This gives mother and baby the opportunity to reconnect and it also provides an opportunity for the mom and the caregiver to communicate. On days off, the mom can focus on nursing her baby as much as possible.
Another challenge is the marketing of the faster flow bottles for older babies. This can undermine breastfeeding as the baby consumes more than he may need because the flow is faster. Once the baby has a bottle that works fine for him, there is no need to change to a faster flow one. Also, the caregiver can use paced bottle-feeding to avoid overfeeding and flying through the milk.
Here are some strategies to keep breastfeeding while working:
- Establish a good supply from the beginning.
- Communicate with your employer.
- Communicate with your caregiver.
- Pump when you are away from baby.
- Use a slow flow bottle.
- Nurse your baby when you are with your baby.
- Nurse all weekend (or on your days off).
- Pump as soon as you get to work (this gives you a jump start).
- Visit your baby during the day so you can nurse.
If it is possible:
- Have your baby sleep with or near you.
- Visit your baby during the day so you can nurse
It is important to remember that breastfeeding is not just a way to get a baby fed. Breastfeeding is a complex relationship. In breastfeeding a mother and baby’s bodies are communicating. Bacteria are passed back and forth to build baby’s immune system. Hormones are passed back and forth to tell a mom’s body to make milk. There is feedback we do not entirely understand, which scientists are discovering is important to mothers’ and babies’ physical and mental health.
Working does not have to mean weaning.
Leigh Anne O’Connor is a La Leche League Leader who especially loves leading the Toddler Meeting. She is an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in private practice and lives in Manhattan, New York City, USA with her husband Rob and their three children.
Are you going back to work but don’t want to give up breastfeeding your baby? Expressing your milk is a learned skill. In Working and Breastfeeding Made Simple by Nancy Mohrbacher you can find lots of information including these tips (p. 133) to help you release your milk to a pump.
Use Your Senses
You can experiment with your senses to help condition your body to release your milk to the feel of a pump.
- Feelings: Get comfortable. Pump in a private place where you can relax. Close your eyes and imagine your baby at your breast. Breathe deeply and imagine a tranquil setting.
- Sight: Look at your baby or your baby’s photo. Play a video of her.
- Hearing: Play an audio or video recording of your baby cooing or crying. Call to check on your baby, or call someone you love to relax and distract you.
- Smell: Smell your baby’s blanket or clothing while you pump.
- Touch: Gently massage your breasts or apply warm compresses.
- Taste: Sip a favorite warm drink to relax you.
Use whichever of your senses work best. Within a short time, you can condition your body to respond to the feel of your pump. You can also use these strategies whenever you’re feeling stressed.