Returning to work as a first-time mother is already complex and challenging. Add pumping milk at the office on top of that, and you’re at the bottom of a steep learning curve. Fortunately, there are several strategies you can use to tame the logistics and manage many of the stressors that come with pumping. Preparation is essential; gather your tools, make a plan, and practice before your return to work. Know what you’re entitled to—begin by understanding the laws organizations must follow around providing break time and an appropriate space for pumping, and use any additional benefits your company offers. Cast a wide net in seeking out support, especially from other pumping mothers in your organization. Set a pumping schedule, block it off in your calendar, and stick to it. A few key phrases will help you set and enforce boundaries with your colleagues. Finally, be flexible, and be prepared to be kind to yourself. There will be difficult moments, but most pumping mothers find what works for them and agree that it is worth all the effort.
Jessica is a physical therapist with a robust and loyal client base within a private physical therapy group. When she returned after the birth of her first child, she was able to coordinate with her organization’s scheduling desk to allow time for two 30-minute pumping breaks per day. During these breaks she would pump in her treatment room with the back of a chair wedged under the doorknob since there was no lock. Jessica’s pay was based on the number of clients she saw, so her pumping breaks not only cut into her patient time, they also resulted in a drop in income.
Kate is an executive who is both passionate about and masterful at her job. Throughout her pregnancy and after the birth of her first child, Kate was pleased to see that her office was an extremely warm, caring environment. When she returned after leave, she felt suitably prepared with support from a lactation consultant, a bounty of products, and an office with a door, which when locked would allow her to pump milk in private. Her colleagues and boss were her biggest cheerleaders and made the experience one that Kate felt positive about.
Returning to work as a first-time mother is already complex and challenging, and starting to pump at work puts you at the bottom of a steep learning curve. Every woman has a different experience, but whether yours is like Jessica’s, Kate’s, or somewhere in between, pumping involves a lot of difficult logistics and often stress.
The best strategies for finding success as a first-time pumping mother center on preparedness. It’s critical to both understand the resources available to you and to plan your time carefully. Here are a few tips to help you succeed in your goals, feel more supported, and reduce the stress that comes with pumping at work.
Prepare, plan, and plan again.
Your pumping plan begins before you even return to work. First, gather your supplies. The Affordable Care Act in the U.S. provides free pumps for all new mothers. If your budget permits, consider getting a second one to use at work so you don’t need to lug it in each day. There are a broad range of goods that make pumping possible, as well as comfortable. Don’t skimp — pumping is tricky, and you will benefit from the best tools available. If you have access to a lactation consultant (check with your OB/GYN, medical insurer, and HR department, before hiring one out-of-pocket), consider getting their advice to help pick the best products for you and create a plan for your return.
Then, spend time getting used to your pump regularly at least two weeks before returning to work. Learning to pump, understanding its accessories, cleaning and storing parts, timing your sessions, and other nuances can be a lot to process. “Logistics are not intuitive,” shares nurse and lactation consultant Torey Potter. “A few (not so dry) runs are quite wise.” Practice, both to get the hang of pumping and to build a freezer stash of milk (after all, your child will need something to eat on your first day back). Get an idea of what kind of producer you are, and don’t be hard on yourself if you aren’t producing as much as you hoped. People have high and oftentimes unreasonable expectations of how things will go. Be patient with yourself.
Understand what you’re entitled to.
Every country has their own laws and regulations about what working mothers are entitled to when it comes to pumping. In the United States, the Affordable Care Act requires employers to provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk,” and they must provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” Start by understanding your national laws, and then move on to what is guaranteed at the local level.
Talk to your HR department to find out where the dedicated pumping spaces are around your organization and if there are any benefits you’re entitled to as a new mother. Some companies, for instance, may have call-in access to nurses, doulas, or lactation consultants that can provide advice or support as you return to work.
Learn the culture.
The experience of using pumping rooms can vary between organizations. Some companies require online registration and scheduling, while others ask for a simple knock on the door to see if it’s occupied. Find out in advance what you need to do, so you’re not surprised (and bursting) on your first day back.
Take a close look at the room and you’ll learn more. What supplies are provided — and what do you need to do to make sure it’s a comfortable space for others who may share the room with you? Some rooms may provide anything from a hospital grade pump, a refrigerator, and a sink, while others keep only a chair near an electrical socket. If it’s a shared space, can you leave pumping supplies in the room or are lockers provided? How are people marking their supplies and milk? Are there sanitary wipes or other cleaning supplies provided? Support the other pumping mothers in your organization by leaving the room as neat or neater than when you first arrived. Everyone wants a sanitary space to pump.
Establish your timetable.
Potter advises, “If you want to keep our milk supply up, you will need to build and keep a routine.” Determine how many times a day you need to pump and for how long. Everyone is different based on their child’s needs and feeding habits, so look at what works best for you.
Also consider how long each session needs to be. Don’t just think about the 15 or so minutes you’ll be actively pumping. Reserve time for setup and cleanup. Untangling tubing, labeling bottles and milk bags, and wiping down surfaces might seem like quick tasks, but they add up.
Set boundaries — and communicate them.
Put your pumping times into your work calendar. By marking these periods as scheduled, you’ll ensure that others won’t double-book you. You’re also signaling to yourself that these are important appointments for you to keep.
It’s also necessary to establish boundaries with others. While pumping may be top-of-mind for you, your coworkers might not think about it until they see you walk by with a pump and a cooler. Since you’ve put pumping times on your calendar — even if they’re just labeled “reserved” — you’ve already taken the first step to ensuring they respect this time. But there will be instances when you will need to push back in the moment. Competing meetings pop up and conversations run long, so be prepared to excuse yourself using whatever form of communication you’re most comfortable with, whether it’s openly saying, “I can’t. I have to go pump,” or a simple, “I have a hard stop at 1:00.” Explain if you can’t accommodate a virtual meeting or call due to pumping: “I won’t be able to join at this time, even with my video off.” Even if your colleagues are aware of your commitment to pumping at work, they won’t know that you need to pump now unless you communicate your boundaries. Whatever you do, don’t skip — missed pumping sessions can result in lower supply, discomfort, blocked ducts, or even mastitis.
At times you may feel alone in your pumping journey, but you are joining a long-standing society of many. Seek out other mothers with children a few months to a few years older than yours and talk to them about any tips they have from their own experience. Ask them the questions that are on your mind — from where they stored their supplies to how they handled their first business trip.
Consider, too, alternative sources of support. External peer support groups can help with anything from logistical tips to emotional support, especially when it comes to working-mom guilt. Lactation consultants and other experts can also help learn how to pump more effectively, establish pumping goals, and overcome specific challenges. And don’t forget the power of your friends and family. Your village is a powerful provider of what you don’t yet know.
Pumping at work is a learning curve — and it’s not set in stone. Over time, you might need to adjust your pumping schedule because another teammate might need the room at the same time or you realize you need to add another session because you’re producing less milk than anticipated (or your baby is drinking more). You may have days where you can work easily while pumping using hands-free pumping supplies, while other times you need to focus on the task of pumping itself. Be kind to yourself. Some days will seem more challenging than others. Be willing to adjust as necessary.
You will be hard pressed to find a first-time pumping mother who does not have a horror story or two to share about workplace pumping (the accidental walk-in by a coworker or spilling that “liquid gold”). But most pumping mothers agree that it was worth the effort in the end. Sidestep pumping stress with practice and preparation, knowing what you’re entitled to and carefully planning and protecting your time. There is no perfect way pump at work, but you can find what works for you.
Adapted from the HBR Working Parents Series book Succeeding as a First-Time Parent.
Julia Beck is the founder of the It’s Working Project and Forty Weeks. Ms. Beck, a passionate strategist, storyteller, ideator, and connector, is based in Washington, D.C. She can be found on social media @TheJuliaBeck.
Courtney Cashman is a senior associate editor at Harvard Business Review.
Copyright 2021 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.