How to Return to Work After Parental Leave
For new or expecting parents who plan to breastfeed, it’s never too early to start preparing for your return to work. We interviewed TLN IBCLC Leah Tribus about how to get ready, what to expect when pumping at work, your breastfeeding rights in the workplace, and the universal benefits of lactation care.
Talk to Your Boss About Lactation Support
When should you start preparing to return to work after giving birth? Before you even leave! Tribus says the best way to approach your employer about breastfeeding is by starting the discussion early (in the prenatal period). You want to “…avoid high tension, high-stakes conversations taking place in the days just before the parents return to work. [Instead,] requesting a meeting time to discuss expectations on both sides will allow time and space for the logistical aspects to be flushed out and an agreement to be made.” Not only will this give the appropriate time for arrangements to be made but “it also cultivates mutual respect between the lactating parent and their employer.”
If your company doesn’t currently have a lactation support program in place, it could be because no one has asked for one yet. Lactation programs like TLN’s Newborn Families are designed to seamlessly integrate into existing employee benefits, giving you the workplace lactation care you deserve. Communicate your plan to breastfeed and explain that you will need the time and space to pump at work. Be prepared to address possible concerns, advocate for yourself, and acknowledge company efforts made to support your breastfeeding. By talking about it now, you have one less thing to worry about later (when you’re slightly sleep-deprived and have a newborn at your side).
Plan a Prenatal IBCLC Visit
It’s normal to have a lot of questions or anxieties about breastfeeding at work. Get ahead of those concerns by meeting with a TLN International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) for a prenatal consultation. You can use this time to get to know your IBCLC, identify your feeding goals, and find the breast pump that’s right for you ahead of time. This meeting will help you start your breastfeeding journey with confidence and prepare you for long-term success.
Your IBCLC will be able to provide you with a wealth of resources, including additional research, information on local classes or support groups, and tips for your transition back into the workplace. Tribus explains that often the stress of returning to work can cause a temporary dip in supply, compounded if the parent doesn’t have a plan in place for their return. “By leaning on [your] lactation consultant, [you] can establish a plan ahead of the return to work and remain in contact with the lactation consultant as issues arise.” Together, you’ll create a detailed plan to reduce stress and prevent common pitfalls.
Find and Practice with Your Breast Pump
When it comes to breast pumps, there’s no one-pump-fits-all solution. The pump you choose will depend on your unique needs, so finding the right breast pump for your body, feeding goals, and lifestyle is essential. You can take a breast pump quiz and consult with your IBCLC to determine what style of breast pump will work best for you.
Once you’ve found your breast pump, don’t wait until you’re back at work to try it for the first time. Pumping feels very different from breastfeeding your baby, so start to practice pumping around two weeks before you plan to return. This will give you the chance to troubleshoot any issues in the comfort of your home and start to build up your stored milk supply so that caregivers can feed your baby while you’re at work.
When you head to work, ensure you have everything you need, including a pump, storage bottles or bags, an extra shirt (trust us), a silicone milk collector or nursing pads, pump cleaning supplies, and a cooler with ice packs. Find more of our favorite expert-recommended breastfeeding accessories here.
Practice Bottle Feeding
You’ll want to help your baby adjust to taking breast milk from a bottle. You can introduce the bottle starting at three weeks old. Prepare them by offering them a bottle of milk during a time you’ll be at work and only provide a bottle at that time. The bottle will become a part of their routine and help them adapt to the change.
What to Expect When Pumping at Work
However you’re feeling about the return to work, it’s okay! Tribus says it can be an emotional experience. “The transition back to work can bring a myriad of emotions. For many parents, it will be bittersweet…Having a plan in place is crucial in alleviating some of the emotional and logistical issues that can arise during this transition.” To make your plan, consider these common questions might have about your first day back.
How Often Should You Pump?
- You’ll want to pump about as often as your baby eats and try to keep the same basic schedule. Maintaining a pumping regular helps sustain your milk supply and prevents plugged ducts and/or mastitis.
- The amount of time it takes to express milk differs from person to person. Parents who have a very strong milk supply, low milk supply, or are combo feeding may be on a different pumping schedule.
- Typically, you can expect to pump two to three times within an eight-hour work day.
- Your IBCLC can guide you and provide a personalized pumping plan unique to you.
How Long Will Pumping Take?
- On average, you’ll need to pump both breasts for 15 to 20 minutes every three hours. (Not including set-up, clean-up, or travel time.)
- Be sure to continue to pump until the milk stops flowing as this is key to maintaining your milk production.
- As your baby’s feeding schedule changes over time, so your pumping schedule will also change–you may need to pump for less time and less frequently.
- If you are exclusively breastfeeding, the goal is to pump enough to cover your baby’s bottles while at work. If you are not covering your baby’s bottles with your pumped milk, meet with an IBCLC to discuss your milk production and supply, frequency of bottle feedings, and pumping schedule and techniques.
How do I Store My Milk Safely?
- Make sure you label the milk container with your name and the date before storing it.
- Breast milk is food and can be safely stored in a refrigerator with other food and beverages for up to four days.
- Breast milk can also be stored in a portable cooler or insulated bag with ice packs for up to 24 hours.
Learn more about how to safely store expressed breast milk in this resource from the CDC.
Breastfeeding Rights in the Workplace
When it comes to breastfeeding at work, it’s important to know your rights! According to Tribus, “Many lactating families don’t realize that they have the right to time and space for pumping.” In most workplaces–whether that’s in an office, on the factory floor, or somewhere entirely different–lactating parents have the right to pump or feed at work through the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, an amendment to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).
This law requires certain employers to provide lactating parents with reasonable break time and a functional, private space (not a bathroom) to pump for one year after the baby’s birth. No one should be able to see inside the area or be able to enter while it is being used. A flat surface where you can place the breast pump and other supplies is also important. Ideally, this space would include a comfortable chair, a door with a lock, and an electrical outlet. The more comfortable you can be, the better.
Even though the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law doesn’t apply to all jobs, you may have state laws protecting your right to pump at work. So do your research, know your rights, and advocate for yourself (and your new baby!).
A lot of work still needs to be done when it comes to protecting lactation rights at work. At TLN, we believe that lactation care is a human right–not a privilege–and that every family deserves expert lactation support. We are committed to and actively working to support lactation protections everywhere.
Lactation support in the workplace is an essential part of meeting feeding goals. Know your rights, advocate for yourself, and consider sharing resources like this article with your employer to give them an overview of your breastfeeding rights and the business benefits of lactation support. You can also reach out to an IBCLC to make a plan so you can meet these milestones together. Remember, you’re not alone in this.