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How to Navigate the Return to Work as a Breastfeeding Mom

Written by Wendy, IBCLC

Returning to work as a breastfeeding mom can be so difficult. Separating from your baby for the first time may be extremely emotional; figuring out how to pump, maintain your milk supply, and ensure sure that your workplace gives you adequate accommodations can be very stressful as well.

If you feel overwhelmed just thinking about it all, you are not alone. Some Motherlove mamas recently shared their experiences of returning to work. Their words are so relatable, aren’t they?

Nobody at work had young children and nobody understood or cared about what I needed for support.

I had my own office with a lock so I pumped there but it was weird.

Co-workers were ok in terms of support but my emotions were all over the place!

Returning to work isn’t necessarily going to be a smooth path—having realistic expectations about that can be helpful. However, with a little knowledge and preparation, chances are you are going to be fine…and so is your little one.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you begin the process:

1. Prepare While You Are Still Home

Nobody wants to spend their entire maternity leave planning their return to work. But taking some small steps can assuage your fears and allow you to relax and enjoy your time with your baby. Here’s what to do:

  • Build up a freezer stash: You don’t have to pump for your whole maternity leave! Start about 1-2 weeks before you return to work. Pump about once a day, and freeze your milk. Save no more than 2-4 ounces at a time, because your baby won’t eat more than that at once. This will also be an opportunity to get comfortable with your pump, and figure out if you need different flange sizes, pump accessories, etc.
  • Interview various caretakers: It can be difficult to find a caretaker who will fully support your breastfeeding relationship, but they are out there. Take some time to interview any caretaker or daycare you are considering. Here are some questions to start with:
Have you ever worked with breastfeeding babies before?
Do you know that breastfed babies feed more frequently, and smaller amounts?
Can you feed my baby on demand rather than on a strict schedule?

2. Start The Conversation With Your Workplace Early

It can be stressful to begin a discussion with your employer about your need for accommodations when you return to work. But waiting too long to begin can backfire too. Here are some things to discuss:

Where will I pump?
What kind of pumping schedule will you offer me?
Will it be possible to breastfeed my baby during lunch, or have them brought to me?
Can I work from home a few days a week, at least while I transition back to work?

It’s also really helpful to speak to other co-workers who have pumped to get some perspective. In fact, a recent study from Michigan State and Texas Christian University found that support from co-workers can make an even bigger difference than support from family and friends when it comes to a successful return to work.

3. Know Your Rights

You have certain rights when it comes to pumping at work, and it’s vital that you become familiar with them. In 2010, the federal government passed a law protecting a breastfeeding mothers’ right to pump at work. Not all workplaces fall under the purview of this law, but most do; you can check with your human resources department to find out if your employer does.

Under the law, you are guaranteed two things:

  1. “Reasonable break time” to pump milk for your baby for up to one year.
  2.  A private place (NOT A BATHROOM!) to pump your milk.

If your workplace is not eligible for federal coverage, your state might offer certain protections. Contact your state or local breastfeeding coalition to find out what your rights are.

4. Know What To Do If Your Rights Are Violated

We’ve all heard one story or another of a breastfeeding mama not given proper accommodations at work, or even being fired when she asked for such accommodations. This is all too common, unfortunately.

But it’s all the more reason to start an open conversation with your employer sooner than later.  Keep in mind that there are actions you can take should your employer violate your rights. Here’s where to start:

  • Contact the Department of Labor: File a complaint with The U.S. Department of Labor Wage and Hour Division (WHD). You can call them at 1-800-487-9243, or find your local office here: www.dol.gov/whd. Your employer cannot fire you just because you file a complaint.
  • Contact the ACLU: The ACLU often takes on some breastfeeding discrimination cases. Either way, they will give you advice about what to do if your rights have been violated. Find your local ACLU office here.

Navigating the return to work is not easy, but remember that you always have options. Sometimes you have to think “outside the box” when it comes to solving any roadblocks you come up against, but you can do it. And the moms who have gone before you are there for you, too. You’ve got this.