The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends that mothers breastfeed for two years for optimal child and maternal health. If a breastfeeding mother doesn’t nurse throughout the day, her body receives the message that it should stop producing milk. For working, breastfeeding mamas, this means taking on the second job of pumping during the work day, and statistics show that breastfeeding rates go down when parents return to work. Pumping at work is work, but there are ways to make it easier on yourself. Here’s what I learned along the way.
As a school principal, I never had a scheduled lunchtime. I moved from cafeteria supervision to parent meetings without pause. I grabbed sporadic bites of my lunch while answering emails. Self-care experts would likely frown at such a routine, but I loved my job and embraced the reality—good leaders eat (and pee) last.
My no-breaks style suddenly became more challenging when I returned from maternity leave after my first baby was born. I wanted to breastfeed my son for two years, and planned to pump at work. I felt confident that making the time was doable, but within days, I was struggling.
I often realized I had forgotten to pump only when the needle-like stabbing in my swollen breasts became unignorable.
You’ve probably guessed, I didn’t make it to my two-year goal. Even nursing at home didn’t make up for wildly inconsistent daytime pumping, and my milk supply quickly shrank to nothing.
When my youngest son was born, I felt more confident as a working mom and ready to try pumping again. I also knew that changing my work mentality to incorporate a pumping schedule wasn’t going to happen without help.
5 lessons I learned about how to successfully pump at work
For round two, I established some ground rules and key tenets for myself. I hope they’ll help you, too.
1. Don’t apologize, advocate
Before you return from maternity leave, talk to your boss or staff about what private space you’ll use to pump. (A bathroom doesn’t count, btw. How many adults want their food prepared on a toilet seat?) When we make our intentions known up front (“I’ll be pumping 20 minutes, twice a day”), we make it easier for colleagues to adapt to our needs. We also empower ourselves by voicing the importance of what we’re doing, making us less susceptible to quitting under silent pressure.
You now have Congress’ backup on this crucial issue, too. The Providing Urgent Maternal Protections for Nursing Mothers, or PUMP Act, went into full effect in May 2023, requiring that employers provide mamas with regular pumping breaks and a sanitary, private pumping space that is functional for the purpose. In other words, not a closet.
Frustratingly, this new law does not provide protections to pumping parents working in the airline industry.
2. Schedule the time—and give yourself accountability
Put your daily pumping “meetings” on your calendar in advance, and stick. to. your. schedule. Committing daily time on a calendar elevates pumping to a must-do task. Whatever nudges you need, set them up in advance and listen to them.
3. Make a routine that fits your organization style
With my oldest son, I frequently forgot my pumping bag at home, left without lids, or forgot to bring my pumped milk home after work.
With my youngest, I created a simple routine to avoid these pitfalls. I set a repeating calendar alarm for 5:00 p.m. each day: “Pull milk out of staff refrigerator.” When I arrived home, I immediately put the filled milk bottles in the fridge and replaced them with empty bottles (and lids!) in my pumping bag. I hung the bag over my purse by the front door so I couldn’t even reach my keys the next morning without grabbing it. Before you start pumping, make your plan. The fewer the steps, the better the plan.
4. Wear clothes designed for breastfeeding
Of all the challenges I experienced as a working pumping mama, this one was surprisingly thorny. I value looking professional at work. Despite diligent searching, I struggled to find maternity workwear, and none of the items I did find had breastfeeding access. This left me with a choice: wear loungewear at work, or wear professional, non-breastfeeding styles. I took option two, and found myself in the awkward position of needing to get mostly naked twice a day to pump. It was uncomfortable and cold. There was also something that felt diminishing about sitting there unclothed, knowing that no one made a resource for my job. As if working pumping moms like myself weren’t a thing.
My experience prompted me to leave education and create the maternity brand MARION. My mission was to make quality, sustainable work clothes that accommodate both pregnancy and pumping. In this small but vital way, I hope to make life more doable for future working mamas.
If you plan to pump at work, select maternity styles that have built-in, invisible nursing access. Go for versatile pieces you can style in several ways, like a flattering black dress and neutral nursing tops that pair with any bottoms. Investing in a few quality nursing pieces will help you avoid the moment you’re shivering on your desk chair with your dress flung over the computer.
5. Look ahead 30 years, and remind yourself why you’re doing this
Elevating motherhood in the professional world is a work in progress, and working moms in 2023 still experience scrutiny for our family responsibilities. The reality is that pumping at your workplace may be met with judgment by less enlightened colleagues.
If you’ve decided to breastfeed and pump, you likely understand the health benefits breastmilk offers. You’re giving your baby the gift of a lifetime. You may also be doing it because you’ve read about the bonding breastfeeding creates between mother and baby. When work pressure mounts, ask the question aloud: in 30 years, what will matter more to me—my colleagues’ opinions or my 30-year-old kid?
The answer is obvious, and so is the response. Pump on, mama.
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