TLDR: Pumping at work requires moms to essentially learn a new skill set, but we brought a lactation consultant in to help. Morgan Jackson has advice for setting yourself up for pumping success at your workplace, including practical advice like scheduling your pumping sessions and doing a test run.
Returning to work after parental leave is challenging for any parent—you’re balancing new 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 a lactation consultant and nurse Morgan Jackson will help you plan for a smooth transition back to work, pump, and all.
Prepare While You’re Still Pregnant
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’re going to be breastfeeding and that you’ll 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 great 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 everything about your pumping situation while you’re pregnant—for example, the amount of times you’ll 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.
Choose the Right Pump
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’s 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.
Educate Yourself & Make Informed Decisions
Signing up for free breastfeeding support through programs like Medela Family1 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’ll look like as a breastfeeding parent. These programs also often have tons of extra perks and discounts.
Do a Practice Pump Day
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 have to be at work.
“Think about your work day and how it’s broken up,” she advises. “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.”
Pick a Buddy
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,” Jackson says. “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, Jackson says. 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. Make sure your colleagues or manager know that they can’t schedule meetings over these times if you can.
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.”
Store in Small Amounts
Until you know how much milk your baby will typically drink in a day, store milk in small amounts. Those six-ounce breast milk storage bags can be misleading: of course, you think you need to be filling them to the brim! Jackson recommends storing or freezing milk in one-ounce, two-ounce, and four-ounce increments instead. 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. Jackson says 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!”
Optimize Your Pump
It’s key that you understand how your pump works to use it 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.
Make It Mindful
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, or anything that makes it a little bit enjoyable and refreshing. Meditate, listen to a podcast, scroll your favorite Instagram accounts check in on TikTok, or 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 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 based on the science of lactation. “To produce milk, you’re using a different part of your brain than the part you use when you’re working. Cortisol (the stress hormone) blocks prolactin (the hormone that promotes milk production), so you may sit down to pump after a stressful work call and find nothing is coming out. To get ready, take a minute to do some deep breathing and relax your body. This will help with the milk flow.”
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,2 which will help with milk production.
Remember: It’s a Rhythm, Not a Race
Pumping parents can get too 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, Jackson says. “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 a.m. and get three ounces, and then at 1 p.m. I get one ounce. You’re not going to pump the same amount every time, and that’s okay.”
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 isn’t static—it changes and evolves, just as you and your little one do.
Practice Self-love & Forgiveness
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 your needs with people at work, 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 on day 65. Maintaining a milk supply throughout 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.