Breastfeeding While Working Outside the Home

My only child weaned 5 years ago this month, and I’ve been meaning to write this article ever since!  I finally got inspired by a recent magazine article arguing that the whole concept of breastfeeding being any kind of good idea is A PLOT TO KEEP WOMEN DOWN!!! and supporting this argument by quoting outdated materials from La Leche League and a few carefully selected over-zealous Websites.  It was so silly, but it was promoting an idea that I’ve heard in lots of less-silly contexts: that feeding a baby nothing but breastmilk until he’s ready for solid foods is horribly difficult unless the mother is willing to be trapped in her home with the baby 24 hours a day.  That just isn’t true!  In my experience, it is entirely possible to pump milk at work and put it into bottles for someone else to feed your baby, even if you work in a non-private cubicle and get only 12 weeks of maternity leave.  To me it seemed hardly more difficult than preparing bottles of formula would have been.  So I am writing this article to share the details of what worked for me.

But first, the disclaimers, because for some reason it is impossible to speak publicly about successful breastfeeding without triggering a lot of women to feel criticized.  The fact that breastfeeding worked for me does not mean that it will work perfectly for every mother in every situation.  There are medical problems that can interfere with breastfeeding no matter how hard a mother tries to do it.  There are mothers who nurse their babies successfully but cannot get their milk to release into a pump.  There are jobs in which it truly is very difficult to arrange anything like an acceptable location or schedule for pumping.  There are employers who are just big jerks and won’t allow pumping. [UPDATE: Americans, click here to learn about your right to pump at work.]

However, most mothers are physically able to breastfeed and pump, and most mothers employed outside the home have jobs where it is possible to pump.  I understand that there are exceptions, but I am writing this article for the majority of mothers who would like to breastfeed but may be uncertain about how to coordinate it with their jobs.  Breastfeeding is not simply a lifestyle choice made by an individual mother; it requires some support from her family, her employer, and the social attitudes she absorbs.  If she is surrounded by people who act like six months of breastmilk is an unrealistic ideal that hardly anyone can attain, it will be much more difficult for her to succeed than if she knows many examples of mothers who met that standard while returning to their jobs.  My intention is to be one of those positive examples. I hope to inspire you to figure out how breastfeeding and pumping could work for you and believe that you are likely to succeed.

That said, here are my tips!

Make arrangements for pumping before the baby is born, but be prepared to adjust your plans.

When Nicholas was born, I was working in an office suite where only the bosses were in private rooms; the rest of us were in cubicles with shoulder-high dividers and one side open to the central space.  Obviously I would not be able to pump in my cubicle.  Another research study supervised by the same people had a suite across the hall with half a dozen private offices, so my first strategy was to ask my boss to let me have one of those offices, displacing the lowest-status person who had one–this seemed realistic, since I had been working with this project for 5 years and had accrued some status.  However, my work (data management) uses the Local Area Network extensively, and it was not possible to extend the LAN across the hall so that I could work over there.

My next option was to switch desks with the computer guy, whose “office” was a windowless closet shared with the LAN server, located right next to the outer door of the suite that made a very loud and irritating noise as it opened and shut all day.  I’m very sensitive to noise and like natural light (my cubicle was near the window) and just couldn’t face the idea of sitting in there all day.  Computer Guy, who was the father of a breastfed baby, offered instead to take his breaks while I was pumping in his office, which was very nice of him!

After about a month, though, my boss thought of a better solution: The Blood Room.  Doesn’t sound better, does it? :-)  This was a storage closet that housed the refrigerator where the other research study was storing blood samples–hence the name–and it also had a spare power outlet and a space on the floor where my pump and I could sit.  Nobody else needed to go in there very often, so I just put up a sign on the door when I was in there.  It worked very well.  I found that I actually got a better yield of milk when sitting on the floor than when sitting at a desk–something about my posture, maybe.

Get the right equipment.

Start on this while pregnant so that you can shop around for good prices or maybe even get something used. [UPDATE: Americans, the Affordable Care Act requires health insurance to cover the cost of a breast pump.]  I was incredibly lucky to get both an electric pump and a manual pump for free from two different friends, each of whom had pumped for three babies while working full-time but was now done having babies.  (They gave me a lot of other used stuff and were great people to know as role models, too!)  La Leche League put me in touch with a local mom who has a home business selling pump parts, and I replaced the valve in the manual pump and all the parts of the electric pump that touch the milk.  Officially it’s not recommended to use a breast pump that’s been used by someone else, but I trusted the health histories of both friends and had no problems–and that electric pump got passed on to another friend who had two kids, so it served six babies in all!  Anyway, here is my list of equipment:

  • Pumps.  I used an electric Medela Pump-in-Style at work, taking it to work on my first day back and then storing it under my desk.  I used an Avent manual pump if I needed to pump anywhere else–at a couple of all-day meetings, in the hospital when I had foot surgery (local anesthetic), and at home when Nicholas would nurse just long enough to make the milk “let down” and then fall asleep leaving me uncomfortably engorged!  I don’t know if these pumps were the best since I didn’t try any others, but they both were good.  The electric pump did both sides at once, which saves time.
  • Bottles.  In addition to the bottles that attach to the pump, bring one or two bottles each day to store the milk you’ve collected.  You don’t want to store it in the pump’s bottles and just add to it at the next session because, if you accidentally knock over one of those bottles, you’ll be losing more milk than just the milk from the current session.  Be sure to bring along the caps that cover the bottle nipples, to keep them clean and prevent them from being accidentally squeezed in transit so that they leak.  (I have no recommendations of specific bottles.  We tried several brands, and Nicholas liked them all the same.  When he was about 8 months old, I started to hear reports that plastic baby bottles might contain BPA, an endocrine-disrupting chemical . . . and I admit, I just put my fingers in my ears and said, “La la la.”  Even EnviroBecca cannot worry about everything.)
  • Bottle brushes.  You’ll need one at home for washing bottles.  If you plan to keep your pump parts at work and wash them there, you’ll need a second bottle brush at work.
  • Carrying bag.  It needs to be insulated, big enough to hold baby’s bottles for a day plus the empty bottles you are going to fill plus ice pack OR to hold the empty bottles plus your pump’s collection bottles and funnels.  (If you are going to wash the pump parts at home, it needs to be big enough for all that stuff at once.)  I bought a bag intended for carrying a six-pack of canned beverages.  It had a long shoulder strap, so I could easily carry it along with baby and his other gear on public transit.  It looked like a lunch bag, so none of my co-workers objected to seeing it in the fridge.
  • Refreezable ice packs.  Get an extra for home and an extra for work so you won’t be caught short when one springs a leak.  Put them in the bag when transporting milk between work, home, and childcare.  While the milk is in the refrigerator, put the ice pack in the freezer.
  • Waterless hand sanitizer.  Keep it with the pump so that you can clean your hands before handling milk–especially if you have to go through a lot of doors or other touching of public objects in between the nearest sink and your pumping place.
  • “Do not disturb” sign for the door of the room where you’ll be pumping.  You might want it to say, “Please come back in 20 minutes,” if it is likely that co-workers will be needing to get into that room or needing to talk to you.

Be open-minded about the experience of pumping.

I didn’t do this–I fully expected that sticking my breasts into a machine was going to hurt and tickle and be one of the worst things about motherhood–but I was pleasantly surprised!  I can’t say I enjoyed the sensation, but it didn’t really bother me, and getting the milk out was a pleasant relief.  Pumping does not release all of the same hormones as nursing a baby, but it does release some of them, so I would return to my work feeling calmer and happier than before.

Start pumping well in advance of returning to work.

In the first 2-3 weeks after birth, focus on establishing your breastfeeding relationship with your baby.  Then, begin to use the pump whenever baby is sleeping and you don’t feel drained.  Not only does this get your body accustomed to responding to the pump, but it enables you to collect the milk to feed the baby on your first day apart.  Possibly you can even begin to build up some reserves of milk to fill in for workdays when your pumping yield is low. 

Freeze milk that isn’t going to be used within a couple of days; be sure to write the date on the freezer bag so you can use the oldest milk first.  Here are some guidelines for milk storage.

Have someone else give baby a bottle.

Somebody told me that I should not be the one to serve Nicholas his first bottle because it might interfere with nursing.  I don’t know about that, but within a month after I returned to work I learned that he would not accept a bottle if I was even within sight, so he might have rejected the bottle entirely if I had tried to introduce him to it myself.  Here’s what we did: When he was six weeks old, I took my Girl Scout troop to an all-day badge workshop, leaving Nicholas at home with his father for seven hours.  When he got hungry, Daniel offered him a bottle.  He said he was suspicious at first, but once he realized it was the same milk in there, he drank it down surprisingly quickly and then went right to sleep.  After that, we didn’t worry, and when he went to the sitter six weeks later he took a bottle from her just fine.  (I know, some babies are not so cooperative.  Here is some advice on bottle-feeding a breastfed baby.)  But I never, ever saw him drink from a bottle, as he absolutely would not do it in my presence–the idea that I was filling all those bottles for him to drink was something I just had to take on faith!

At work, pump approximately when you would be nursing if you were with your baby.

This was awkward for me because Nicholas always preferred to nurse just one side at a time and, as a little baby, would nurse every hour during a large portion of the day.  So I modified this advice and pumped both sides at once, every two hours.  I was working part-time and was away from him about six hours, so I pumped twice a day.  Over time I adjusted the schedule a little as I noticed variables affecting my milk supply–for example, I personally got more milk about one hour after eating lunch than if I pumped much earlier or later, but I’ve heard other moms report different timing; I’m sure it depends on your metabolism.  It’s not important to keep exactly the same schedule day after day–you can flex it around meetings and such–but you’ll be most comfortable if you pump at relatively consistent times so that you don’t get engorged and don’t pump when you’re not ready.

Drink plenty of fluids.

In particular, plan to drink a full cup within the hour before pumping.  Keeping an electric kettle on my desk helps me remember to fix beverages regularly.  I drank a lot of herbal tea.  Nicholas didn’t object to my drinking coffee, but some babies do; if yours is sensitive to caffeine, you may be able to get away with drinking it right after pumping.

Fill each bottle with the amount your baby would drink from you at one feeding.

Easier said than done, huh?  You don’t have ounce markings on your breasts!  You can’t see how much is going into your baby the way you can see how much is going into the pump!  But you can estimate, starting from the assumption that the average amount that comes out of each breast when you pump is similar to the average amount that comes out of each breast when the baby nurses it.  The accuracy of this assumption surely varies between mothers, but for me it seemed to be pretty close.  I started out putting 2 ounces in each bottle because I was getting about 2 ounces from each side and he was nursing only one side at a time.  After getting feedback from the babysitter about how much Nicholas was taking at a feeding, I increased it to 2 1/2 or 3 ounces; I was able to keep up with him because he was taking bottles less often than he would nurse when with me.  As he got older, occasionally I would notice an increase in milk production and therefore increase the amount per bottle by 1/2 ounce.  He was usually satisfied with his bottles and didn’t let much milk go to waste.

Read motherly things while pumping.

At first I was reading whatever magazine I had handy.  (Magazines that lie flat are easier to read than books, unless you have a hands-free pumping rig.)  Then I bought a lot of back issues of Mothering magazine at a yard sale.  I noticed that my milk let down faster and I produced more when I was reading about babies and the joys of motherhood than when I was reading about, say, mountaintop-removal coal mining.  Makes sense!  Read things that are pleasant and encourage you to think about your baby.

Have a back-up plan.

When I began pumping in The Blood Room, I left my pump in there because there was space for it and I wouldn’t have to lug it across the hall twice a day.  There was only one key to The Blood Room, which I picked up from the secretary’s desk every time.  One day she decided to order a copy of the key so that I could have my own on my key ring.  She sent it off after my second pumping session of the day, expecting that it would be returned with the duplicate within a couple hours.  As often happens in the bureaucratic procedures of a megaconglomerate system, there was some kind of delay somewhere, and when I was ready to pump the next morning I was locked out of the room where my pump was!!  I called the babysitter and arranged for her to delay Nick’s late-morning feeding; then I combined my usual pumping-break times with my lunchtime and raced to the bus stop, got to the sitter’s home just as my baby became really furious with hunger, nursed him on both sides, handed him back to the sitter in a happy little milk coma, and raced back to work.  I had my own Blood Room key by the end of the day.  Whew!!  If I had not been able to get my own key, I would have resumed keeping my pump under my desk so that, in a pinch, I could use it in another room.

Develop a routine for managing your equipment.

One of the best tips I got about pumping was that the pump parts do not have to be washed after every session–once a day is enough, especially if you refrigerate them in your milk storage bag.  I am very sensitive to cold and was skeptical about the idea of putting recently-refrigerated plastic against my bare breasts, but it really did warm up so quickly that it didn’t bother me. 

After the day’s first pumping session, I poured the milk from the collection bottles into the storage bottle, screwed the funnel+valve assemblies back onto the collection bottles, put all the bottles into the bag, and took it back to the fridge. 

After the second session, I put the storage bottles in the bag in the fridge, and then I took the pump parts and my dish towel and tiny bottle of dish detergent (travel-size bottle intended for shampoo, filled from my large bottle of detergent at home) into the restroom.  I washed and rinsed the funnels, valves, and bottles, then wrapped them in the towel and took them back to my cubicle, which had a suspended storage cabinet on the side against the wall.  I spread out the parts on the towel on top of the cabinet to dry.  (I’m sure there are offices in which people would make nasty “jokes” about that or complain that they were offended.  This didn’t happen to me.  If it had, I could have dried the parts with the towel and put them away out of sight, instead of letting them air-dry.) 

At the end of the day, I got my ice pack from the freezer, put it into my bag from the refrigerator, and went to the sitter’s house.  She gave me back the day’s empty bottles, and I put them into the bag. 

As soon as we got home, I put my stored milk in the refrigerator and ice pack in the freezer.  Then my top-priority chore (once baby’s and my immediate needs were met) was washing the empty bottles and distributing the stored milk in one-meal servings each in a separate clean bottle.  On Fridays I brought home the pump parts (having not bothered to wash them at work that day) and boiled them and all the bottles; sterilizing once a week seemed to be good enough!  [UPDATE: Dr. Sears now says it isn’t necessary to sterilize, for a healthy baby.]  I also swapped my dish towel for a clean one each weekend.

Appreciate supportive people, and tune out the naysayers!

I am very, very lucky to have been raised in an extended family in which everyone breastfed, to have fallen in love with a man whose family also believes in breastfeeding, to have a mother who was a La Leche League Leader in the 1970s and able to give me lots of good advice, to know many women who successfully breastfed while employed outside the home, and to have a local La Leche League group that is accepting of employed moms.  Even so, I did encounter a few people who acted baffled that I could breastfeed and hold a job.  Worse, I met a few women who–having just met me in some public place, knowing almost nothing about me except that I was a nursing/pumping mother–said things like, “Stop being so hard on yourself.  Don’t let those doctors make you feel guilty for giving him formula!  You deserve to get your body back!”  (With whose body did they think I was nursing?!  I loved having the new superpower of making milk!  And if “my body” is the one shaped like it was before pregnancy, well, I bet I got back to that shape faster with the extra caloric drain of breastfeeding, except that I got to have larger breasts for two years, so gee, no complaints!) 

The easiest way of dealing with those people was just to think, “How silly!” and shrug and get on with my life.  I know some mothers get badly harassed by people who really think there’s something wrong with breastfeeding (“It’s unnatural”–seriously, are they insane?!) and I am so sorry that that happens.  The best defense against people who tell you that it can’t be done is just to do it, love it, and encourage others.  But I do understand that it’s a lot harder for many moms in our so-called civilized society than it was for me.

Was pumping milk for my baby while I worked more difficult than nursing him in person?  Yes, absolutely–taking care of all that equipment added some extra chores and aggravation to my day!  Was it more difficult than feeding him formula?  Well, I can’t say for sure since I didn’t try formula, but it seems to me I would have had to do all that bottle-washing either way, and instead of spending time pumping I would’ve had to remember to buy formula, so it would have been pretty similar.  What convinced me to breastfeed–leaving aside the health benefits and thinking only of convenience–is that it was a lot easier when I was not at work!  All night long, when my baby woke up hungry I could just open my nightgown and resume drowsing, instead of getting up to warm a bottle.  All weekend long, I could take my baby wherever I wanted to go without having to worry about packing bottles or finding a way to heat them.  It was awesome!  Arranging for the feeding of your baby while you’re away at work is a hassle no matter what you feed him.  If you like your job and want to return to it, I hope you’ll consider continuing to feed your baby your own milk.  It worked for me!

Please feel free to link to other resources for employed breastfeeding mothers or post your own tips in the comments!

Visit the breastfeeding linkup at Mums Make Lists and the Breastfeeding Support Blog Party for more excellent advice from more than 100 mothers.  Visit the I am Mom! Enough! Linky Party for articles by other moms who have found their own ways to be “enough” to their kids.  Visit Mom’s Library and Babies & Beyond for many more articles about parenting.

About 'Becca
author of The Earthling's Handbook, about the environment, parenting, cooking, and more!

10 Responses to Breastfeeding While Working Outside the Home

  1. Abby Chen says:

    Thanks for the info. I’ll keep it in mind if I have a baby.

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