breastfeeding and Returning to work

Epic Guide: Everything You Need to Know About Breastfeeding and Returning to Work

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Breastfeeding and working can be challenging, but it has so many benefits.

Continuing to breastfeed when you go back to work may seem like it is going to be a lot of work and a big, fat hassle. I can assure you, it is worth it.

Breastfeeding has both short term and long-term value.

The benefits of breastfeeding are affected by how long you do it. Any breastfeeding is good and breastfeeding longer gives more benefits that last longer.

Planning will make the transition easier, and streamline the whole process.

Why You Should Keep Breastfeeding After You Return to Work

Breastfeeding provides protection against:

+++Plus +++

  • Parents with a healthy baby don’t have to stay home from work with a sick baby.
  • They don’t have to leave work to take a sick baby to the doctor.
  • You don’t have to pay for those doctor visits and medications.
  • You won’t get sick from your healthy baby.

Benefits for Employers 

  • There is a financial benefit for employers from all that decreased time off and less use of health insurance.
  • Working mothers who breastfeed are more productive (Source).
  • When breastfeeding moms are supported by their employer they are more loyal employees (Source).

Breastfeeding and returning to work

Your Plan for Breastfeeding and Returning to Work

Every mom, baby and work situation is unique.

I will go over different things to consider to help you create a plan that will work for you.

It can also help to talk to a lactation consultant about the best options in your situation.

When to Return to Work

Deciding when you return to work after you have a baby may or may not be an option. Some women will be able to decide what works best for them. Other women will have their decision limited by:

  • Company policy
  • Whether their leave is paid or unpaid
  • How much paid time off they have accumulated?
  • How much time they can afford to go without a paycheck
  • Child care options
  • Time of year their baby is born 
  • Concern about how an extended absence from their profession can affect their future

Breastfeeding and Returning to work


Growth Spurts and Returning to Work

Common times for returning to work are 6 weeks, 3 months and 6 months. Unfortunately, these are also the most common times for growth spurts.

Growth spurts=eating more. More frequent breastfeeding helps stimulate an increase in your supply.

Can you see the problems this might cause?

  • It can cause a crisis in confidence that you’ll be able to pump enough for the long term.
  • If you are just getting back to work then more frequent feedings will deplete your stash pretty quickly.
    • If you are returning at any of these times plan to have a larger than average stash.
  • Once you are back at work try to pump more often so that you are getting more stimulation. This will help even if you don’t get as much each time.
  • Remember, this is from a growth spurt and it is temporary.

If possible, avoid going back to work when a growth spurt is expected.

If that’s not possible, just do what you can to deal with it. This too will pass.

Full-time vs Part-time

Part-time is going to cause the least stress and the least impact on your milk supply.

If you work full-time, five days in a row, try and negotiate coming back to work part-time initially. Even if you have to come back to work a little earlier.

Stay with me on this.

This plan can ease the separation for both you and your baby. There will also be less of an impact on your milk supply.

Put the day(s) off in the middle of the week.

Other option to consider:

  • Working at home one day, or more, a week.
  • Shorter work days
  • Taking a long weekend once a month
  • Job sharing

These aren’t going to be options for everyone. But, if any of these are an option for you, take it. Ask if it can be an option! Remember, you never know if you don’t ask.

Plan, Plan and Then Plan Some More!

Breastfeeding and returning to work

Breastfeeding Laws at Work

By law, if your employer is required to follow the “Fair Labor Standards Act”, then they must:

  • Give you reasonable time to pump
  • Provide you with a place to pump that is:
    • Shielded from view
    • Protected from coworkers and the public walking in on you
  • It must not be a restroom
  • If it is not a dedicated space, then it must be available when a breastfeed mom needs it for pumping
  • This must be paid time if it a break that is regularly compensated
  • Employers  with less than 50 employees and can prove that complying with this law would impose an undue hardship are exempt.
  • These laws must be followed until your baby’s first birthday.
  • If your state has laws that go beyond these requirements, then your state laws prevail.

Breastfeeding at Work

Breastfeeding and returning to work

Some moms find that it is possible, and even easier to directly breastfeed for at least some feedings.

  • If your child care is onsite
  • If you work at home
  • If child care is close enough that you can walk or drive within your break times
  • If your child care provider, or a friend or relative can bring your baby to you

Common Problems

It’s generally not a question of if one of these things will happen, but which one and when it will happen.

  • Decreased milk supply
  • Not keeping up with your baby’s needs due to overfeeding from your child care provider
  • Bottle refusal

Let’s talk about each one and what to do about it.

Breastfeeding and returning to work

Decreased milk supply

Don’t panic! This is one of the most common bumps in the road for a breastfeeding mom who works.

The first thing you want to do is look at the basics.

  • Are you getting enough stimulation?
    • How many times a day are you pumping and breastfeeding?
    • Can you increase either of these things?
  • Is your pump working well?
    • Do any of the parts need to be replaced?
    • Is it a pump that has been well-used and it’s time to retire it?
    • Was it a used pump in the first place?
      • A pump used by you for an older child is considered a “used” pump.
  • Has your baby started sleeping longer stretches at night?
  • Have you consumed any milk-busters?
    • Peppermint
    • Sage
    • Pseudoephedrine
  • Other things that can decrease milk supply
    • Menstruation
    • Hormonal contraceptives

Decreased milk supply is a different problem than your baby being overfed.

Overfeeding will result in your stash getting depleted quickly.

  • Make sure your child care provider offers an appropriate amount.
  • Your baby should be pace-fed for as long as it is age appropriate.
  • When a baby shows signs that they are finished they should never be coaxed to finish the last little bit.
  • Feedings should be for hunger, not boredom or comfort.
  • Just because a baby drinks the milk doesn’t mean they are hungry or need it. How many adults eat out of boredom, stress or emotional reasons?
  • Feeding a baby is not a race where whoever does it the fastest, wins.

Bottle Refusal

Breastfeeding and returning to work

A baby who refuses a bottle makes returning to work very stressful!

Tips to overcome bottle refusal

  • Try when baby is hungry
  • When she’s not hungry
  • When she’s sleepy
  • At the end of a feeding
  • After one breast. If she only takes one breast, try after she’s nursed half the normal amount of time.
  • Try different times of day
  • Try a different nipple
  • Try with cold milk
  • Make sure that mom is not in the room, maybe even not in the house
  • Have a few different people try
  • Try when baby is not at home
  • My favorite tip is to turn baby away so she can’t see the face of the person offering the bottle. Have them walk, sway or dance. Try humming or singing.
  • If your baby is four months or older, try offering a cup instead of a bottle.

Breastfeeding and returning to work

Consider reverse cycling. That is when your baby eats more frequently when she is with you. This would be instead of her sleeping a long stretch at night.

Can you extend your maternity leave?

This usually works itself out. A baby won’t starve themselves. It just won’t be any fun for anyone for a while.

Building Your Stash of Backup Milk 

Breastfeeding and Returning to work

Before you go back to work you will want to get a backup supply of milk in your freezer. Don’t stress about this. It is back-up.

When you work, you will pump one day, and that milk will be given the next day you are at work.

You will only have to dip into your stash when:

  • You spill the milk you have pumped. This is probably going to happen at least once. You  cry. There’s a reason that saying about not crying over spilled milk doesn’t say “don’t cry over spilled breast milk.”
  • You child care provider will spill some milk.
  • Your baby will get overfed (more on this later because it happens a lot!
  • You will miss a pumping break
  • You will have a decrease in supply (this is another thing that is common).

When your stash gets to the point that you start to worry over how much is there, start adding to it again.

How much milk to have in your stash

I tell moms to have a goal of two week’s worth of the milk your baby will need. If you can get more, that is awesome. If you can’t get this much, don’t stress because it is back-up.

The only amount you must have is enough for the first day.

Your next question is going to be, “how much should I have for the first day?”

I can’t give you an amount because it will be a different amount for each baby. If you have given your baby bottles recently, that will be your starting point.

Leave enough for a bottle for each feeding, plus at least one extra. If you are not sure how often your baby eats, track it for 2-3 days. If your baby is a grazer, plan on a bottle every 2-3 hours.

A six week old baby eats 2-3 oz/feeding, a 6 month old could eat as much as 5 oz. 

Breastfed babies generally top out at 4-5 oz per feeding. If they are being fed more that 5 oz at a feeding, it is too much.

Most child care providers want the bottles ready to go so all they have to do is warm them up. If you have someone coming to your home, it is better if they can thaw frozen milk if they have to dip into your stash. That way you wouldn’t have to have that extra bottle if they have your stash to go to.

When to start pumping

Breastfeeding and returning to work

When you are breastfeeding and returning to work you may or may not already have milk in the freezer. If you don’t, start pumping for your stash 4-6 weeks before returning to work.

First, you will need to see how much you get when you pump. This will vary from mom to mom.

Moms with an oversupply may only need to pump every few days. Moms who are making just enough may need to pump a few times a day.

Pumping in the morning, right after a feed, will usually yield the most milk.

If you aren’t getting very much, continue pumping at the same time every day and you should start getting more. Pump for five minutes after your milk stops flowing. That will tell your body to make more milk every time you pump.

When to start offering a bottle

Your baby may already be taking a bottle on a regular basis and you can skip over this part. Otherwise, start offering a bottle at least 4-6 weeks before you return to work.

If you offered a bottle earlier, but haven’t in a while, make sure your baby will still take it.

I have talked to moms who offered a bottle in the early weeks and then they stopped until they had to go back to work. Their baby refused the bottle, as if to say, “No thank you, I prefer milk directly from the source.”


Some moms will have the flexibility to pump whenever they need to. If that is you, pump when your baby would normally be feeding. If your baby is a grazer then pump every 2-3 hours.

If you have specified times when you can pump, work with that.

It isn’t a perfect world and sometimes you have to make do. Just do the best you can.

Child Care

Breastfeeding and returning to work

You need to choose a child care provider who enthusiastically supports breastfeeding. This is really important for continuing breastfeeding and returning to work.

You will want to make sure your childcare provider follow these golden rules:

  • Treat breast milk like the liquid gold that it is.
  • Paced-feeding for younger babies. I watched a baby as a favor for my daughter’s coworker. She told me one childcare provider she used was overfeeding her baby. I talked about making sure feedings were paced. I assured her I would do that. At the first feeding it was clear that he was the age where he was going to manage the feeding the way he wanted to. I have now modified my advice to paced feeding as long as is age appropriate.
  • They need to watch for signs of hunger and not just offer a bottle every time your baby fusses, grunts or squeaks.
  • An appropriate amount should be offered.
  • If your baby doesn’t finish the bottle then the milk can be reused for up to two hours and used again (Source).

Watch them give a bottle to make sure they don’t encourage eating too quickly or eating after they are showing signs of fullness.

Other child care rules for breastfeeding babies

  • Try not to give a bottle when they know you will be home soon
    • Keep your child care provider updated if you will be late. This will help them decide if they should go ahead and feed your baby if he is acting hungry.

If your baby stays at home while you are at work, try to time feedings so you feed and then walk out the door.

For the baby who goes somewhere for child care:

  • If child care that is far from home ask if you can arrive a little early to feed your baby when you drop him off. Ask if when you pick him up you can feed him before leaving. This can decrease the amount of milk you need to pump at work.

Where Will You Pump?

Breastfeeding and returning to work

Make sure you know exactly where you will be pumping.

  • Is there an electrical outlet?
    • If not, then you will need a pump that has a battery option.
    • Have extra batteries! Pumps drain a lot of power and you will run through batteries quickly.
    • If you have a rechargeable battery, make it part of your routine to charge it daily. Then also have regular batteries as back-up.
  • Is there a sink so you can wash your pump parts?
    • If not, you will need to decide how to clean your parts. Is there a sink somewhere else to clean them?
    • You may need to carry a thermos of hot water and some paper towels.
    • Is a second pump kit within your budget?
    • Pumping directly into bags will eliminate the need to wash bottles. They sell adaptors and bags to do this.
  • Is there a refrigerator for pumped milk where you can store your milk?
  • You will want a good insulated cooler to transport your milk in any case.

Where Will You Store Your Milk?

I worked at a place where there was a small refrigerator specifically for pumped breast milk. The reason for a dedicated fridge was because someone threw a hissy fit about breast milk being in the food fridge. I thought that was pretty silly because breast milk is food.

  • Will you have a dedicated fridge or is there is a refrigerator where food is stored that you can use?
  • Ask if you can store breast milk in there.
    • Make sure it is properly labeled so someone doesn’t try to put it in their coffee.

Products For Breastfeeding and Returning to Work 

There are some must have items.

  • Breast pump
  • Double electric pump is ideal
  • Any pump that gets your milk out is going to work. Don’t feel like if you can’t have a double electric pump then pumping won’t work for you.
  • Bag for the pump and the pump parts
  • Insulated cooler
  • Cloth or paper towel to put everything on
  • Alternative is to wipe everything down with a disinfectant wipe

Convenience Items, aka:these make life so much easier

  • Hands free bra or tank
  • A bag specifically for pumping that has a place for everything that you need.

Breastfeeding and Returning to Work Books

Working and Breastfeeding Made Simple

Work, Pump, Repeat

Working Without Weaning

Nursing Mother, Working Mother

Hirkani’s Daughters: Women Who Scale Mountains to Combine Breastfeeding and Working

Breastfeeding in Combat Boots

Practice First

It can be helpful to do some dry runs.

  • Have your baby spend some time with the child care situation.
  • Make sure your baby will take a bottles from them, and that they are feeding an appropriate amount.
  • See how much time it takes to go to the place where you’ll pump and do everything there that you need to do.
  • If you are one of the lucky ones who will have their baby brought to them for any feedings, do a dry run to see how that will go. If your break time is limited, postpone any oohing and ahhing over your baby until after feedings.


Final Thoughts

Make a plan.

However, remember what they say about the best laid plans. Things rarely go exactly according to plan.

Be patient with the transition. Expect bumps along the way.

Above all, give yourself grace

Breastfeeding and returning to work can be challenging. But it is an awesome thing to do for your baby.



Checklist So You Always Have What You Need
Avoid Pumping Disasters


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Set yourself up for a positive breastfeeding experience with this checklist created by a lactation consultant and mother of three.
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