Returning to work after parental leave is challenging for any parent—you’re balancing baby life with work meetings, sleep regressions with spreadsheets and shift schedules. And if you’re breastfeeding, throwing pumping in the mix can create a bigger challenge. Whether you’ve been exclusively breastfeeding, exclusively pumping, or combo feeding, there will probably be a bit of a learning curve as you transition back to work.
Maintaining a milk supply as a working, pumping parent is doable—with some forethought, attention to logistics, and careful support. These pumping tips from Morgan Jackson, an RN, IBCLC, and Expectful lactation advisor, will help you plan for a smooth transition back to work, pump and all.
If you know you’re going back to work and want to continue breastfeeding, Jackson advises that you start preparing for pumping before you have your baby. “Let your supervisor know that you are going to be breastfeeding and that you will need to pump. Know where you’re going to pump, know what your job’s pumping policies are, know what the breaks might look like, and how much time you might need. Make a plan.”
Meeting with a lactation consultant before birth can be a terrific way to understand your pumping needs and develop a plan that will work for you and your baby. Keep in mind that you may not know all of the information about your pumping situation during pregnancy—for example, the amount of times you need to pump per day. So while planning is key, be prepared to adjust your plan when you go back and as your pumping/breastfeeding relationship changes and develops.
You’ve probably put some effort into researching pumps already, but Jackson says the most important thing to consider when picking a pump for going back to work is that it is reliable and designed for frequent use (some pumps are designed for more occasional use, so they might not be the best fit if you’re going to be away from your baby five days a week).
It’s also important to consider the line of work you’re in and how that might affect the kind of pump you want to use—if you’re in the car a lot, for example, a cordless pump might be perfect for your needs.
Signing up for free breastfeeding support through programs like Medela Family gives you expert-backed tips and tons of resources right to your inbox, so you can confidently plan your return to work and what that will look like as a breastfeeding parent. These programs often also offer tons of extra perks and discounts – for example, Medela Family members also get 30% off a year of Expectful for well-rounded support no matter where you may be in your prenatal, postnatal, and/or breastfeeding journey.
Before you gather up all your gear for the first day back, do a test run! Jackson says you should do a run-through of a work day, including packing supplies for both you and your little one, dropping your baby off at their childcare, and practicing using your pump (as well as cleaning and sterilizing the parts). This can help you troubleshoot any issues that come up…before you actually have to be at work.
She advises, “Think about your work day and how it’s broken up. Consider how much you need to pump, the flow of your work, and even what it looks like to get home at the end of the day. For example, how will it look to reconnect with your baby? Will you pump before picking up your baby or breastfeed when you see them again? A test run can help answer some of these questions.”
If you work an unpredictable job, like in a hospital or at a restaurant, enlist a supportive and understanding coworker to be a support person for you when you pump. This person can cover your workload or answer questions from curious coworkers.
Another way to be supported is to have an experienced pumping or breastfeeding friend you can call on when things get tough. “On those harder days, checking in with a friend can help. You might need someone to say “Keep going, it’s so worth it!” or “You’ve been pumping for a long time, maybe it’s time to start weaning.” Feeling seen, heard, and supported can go a long way.
In general, you’ll need to pump about every three hours, explains Jackson. She recommends you pump on the way to work (if possible) once in the morning, once around lunch, and once in the afternoon. Set aside (or fully block off!) these times on your schedule in advance whenever possible.
If for some reason your day gets really busy, Jackson says it’s better to have a shorter pumping session than to skip one. “Even five minutes is beneficial and is better than not pumping at all.”
Until you know about how much milk your baby will drink in a day, store milk in small amounts. Those 6 oz breastmilk storage bags can be misleading: of course you think you need to be filling them to the brim! Jackson says you can store or freeze milk in one oz, two oz, and four oz increments. These are also easier to store and easier to defrost.
Don’t compare what you’ve pumped to any of those massive freezer stashes you may have seen on social media, either. For Jackson, it’s important to have just “a few days” of milk stored. She wants moms to know that “you don’t need a freezer full!”
It’s key that you understand how your pump works in order to use it most effectively. Watch the videos on the manufacturer’s website. Play around with the settings to see what works best for you—the factory setting may not be ideal for your body! Ensure you have the correct flange size and that the pump fits your body well.
Pumps also require maintenance to remove milk well. Switch out the valves and membranes regularly.
Use your pumping breaks as mental breaks from work. Make your pumping breaks something you look forward to, with a nutritious snack, a fresh cup of coffee, anything that makes it a little bit enjoyable and refreshing. Meditate, listen to a podcast, scroll your favorite IG accounts or check in on TikTok, read a chapter in a book—whatever fills your cup. Even better: try one of our pumping meditations on Expectful! And hey, taking a mental break every now and then might even make you a more efficient worker when it’s time to get down to business.
For Jackson, making pumping relaxed and mindful isn’t just a nice-sounding idea. It’s actually based in the science of lactation. “To get a letdown, you’re using a totally different part of your brain than the part you use when you’re working. Cortisol (the stress hormone) actually blocks prolactin (the hormone that promotes milk production), so you may sit down to pump after a stressful work call and find there’s nothing coming out. To get ready, take a minute to do some deep breathing and relax your body. This will help with the milkflow.”
To get ready, take a minute to do some deep breathing and relax your body. This will help with the milkflow.
She also advises watching a video of your baby, looking at photos, or having something that smells like your baby nearby. All of these can help release oxytocin, which will help with milk removal.
Pumping parents can get uber focused on numbers and output. But remember that pumping breast milk isn’t always an exact science—it’s going to vary day to day, sometimes even hour to hour, explains Jackson. “Milk production is related to circadian rhythm, so you make a different amount of milk depending on what time of day it is. I may sit down at 8 am and get three ounces, and then at 1 pm I get one ounce. You’re not going to pump the same amount every time, and that’s ok.”
The amount you pump (or need to pump!) may also change as your baby grows, supplements with formula or solid food, becomes more active, sleeps more, or goes through a growth spurt. Pumping is not static. It changes and evolves, just as you and your little one do.
The transition back to work often comes with pressure—from yourself, from work, from our overall perceived social standards. Be gentle with yourself and with your body. Remember you’re doing the best you can, and that’s what your baby needs the most.
Here’s the takeaway: communicate with work (and others), schedule well (including time for yourself), and practice self-love.
Remember that this is a big transition. You won’t have all the answers on day one…or even day sixty five. Maintaining a milk supply through pumping will take both patience and perseverance, as well as flexibility. You’ll have to tweak, pivot, and roll with the punches.
Check in with yourself regularly to ensure you’re coping well and feeling capable. And above all, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. You’re doing wonderfully at being an employee and a parent, so don’t lose sight of the big picture: a happy mom and a happy baby.
…that Expectful has an entire course devoted to helping you return to work after parental leave? It’s called Back to Business, and it will help you navigate both the logistics and the emotions of such a big transition. It serves up real takeaways from how to delegate to how to utilize your newly developed Mom-skills. Plus, you’ll have the opportunity to reflect on the kind of employee and mom you want to be. The course is available in the app to our subscribers.
We understand that growing your family while having a healthy and happy pregnancy and baby is probably a top priority for you right now.
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All of our meditation content is based on interviews with many soon-to-be and new parents just like you, and is created with the help of licensed psychologists, hypnotherapists, and meditation experts. You can practice in just 5 minutes a day.