Maternity leave is up, and it’s time to get back to work (though I’d argue that caring for a newborn is some of the hardest work you’ll ever do!). The transition from stay-at-home mother of a breastfeeding newborn to high-functioning, schedule-keeping, pumping mama is never easy, but I’m here to remind you that it can be done. This is my story of how I worked 13-hour days, kept up with my career, and pumped enough to “breastfeed” exclusively (bottles of pumped milk count!).
When my first child was 12 weeks old, like many moms in the U.S., I went back to work. Lots of us work long hours, and as a floor nurse at a hospital, there was no getting around my 12.5-hour shift. With travel time, that meant I was often away from my infant for 13 or even 13.5 hours at a time, sometimes missing his entire waking day. Luckily, he woke to breastfeed at night and I could steal some much needed connection with my baby.
Pumping enough milk for his entire day away from me wasn’t easy. And I won’t lie; I had to supplement, almost from the beginning of my return to work. But by the time I had my second child three years later, I had become a certified lactation consultant and I was determined to breastfeed exclusively. Even though I was still working those same 13-hour days, I made it work. Here’s how.
Lots of breastfeeding… from the very start!
With my first child, I had been encouraged to use some formula to “get him over the hump” while waiting for my milk to come in. When my daughter was born, though, I felt more confident in my ability to feed her and wanted to avoid any formula if possible, so I exclusively breastfed her from birth. She screamed for food for her first 48 hours of life, and while I don’t advocate starving babies, I knew I was producing colostrum and I just kept feeding her at the breast over and over again. This helped to build my milk supply, which while never abundant was always enough, as long as I was available to her.
The ‘return to work pumping’ begins!
A few weeks before returning to work, when my daughter was about eight or nine weeks old, I started pumping in the morning, about an hour after a feed. I didn’t take more than an ounce or two away from her each day since she still very much needed (and wanted) the milk I was making for her. If I happened to pump more than I expected or she woke up wanting to eat sooner than later, I would then feed her on both breasts but then give her a bottle some of the extra pumped milk I had saved. This reinforced her ease at going between breast and bottle. By the time my first day of work arrived, I had a full day’s worth of milk (in various increments that could be combined to make three-ounce bottles) and a few extra bottles just in case.
Also, I would always try to leave a little extra milk for anyone caring for my daughter, because babies often need a little extra sucking or even milk to feel comforted in your absence. I also wasn’t sure if I’d make it home in time for her last feed!
Get to know your baby’s routine.
By this point, my amazing sitter and I had figured out that the baby was happy with three-ounce bottles of breastmilk every three hours. She would drink the bottle, sometimes fuss for more if she had sucked it down too quickly, but ultimately be happy for an hour plus before melting from tiredness. She needed help to fall asleep but would then wake up at the three-hour mark and eat again. I should note she was consistently in the 83rd-94th percentile for both height and weight, so while it doesn’t sound like a lot of milk, it was just right for her.
First day back arrives.
Once I got to work, everyone was so excited to see me again, see pictures of the baby, and of course give me my share of the work load. It was overwhelming, but I knew the baby was in good hands and getting my milk all day. I also knew that I needed to pump either every three hours or whenever the baby ate, if not more often, in order to keep up with her demands.
This is where I lose a lot of people, but let me share that I usually had a 10-14 patient workload where I was administering scheduled meds, assisting patients whenever they called, discharging new families with 20-40 minutes of teaching at a time, admitting new patients, and making sure they were stable. I had minimal meal breaks and no office of my own to shut the door and pump.
So how did I do it?
I tried to get ahead of myself – I pumped if I saw a window regardless of how long it had been since I last pumped. Also, my sitter texted me whenever the baby ate, so this was a great reminder that I had better get myself into the back room and plug in. I took the opportunity to sit at a computer and chart on my patients since I had a hands-free pumping bra. (Actually, I didn’t, I just got really good at using my left forearm to hold one flange in place and that hand for the second flange, leaving my right hand free to chug my water and move the mouse and type… or occasionally play “Words With Friends.”)
Get into a rhythm.
After 20 minutes or two to three minutes of dry pumping (when the milk no longer comes out), I’d put tops on the bottles, label them, and throw them in the fridge, collecting as the day passed. As the end of the shift approached, I’d check in with my sitter and see if the baby could wait for me to get home and feed her or if I needed to pump one last time. Either way, I brought home a cooler bag with enough milk for the next day.
On weekends, I might try to pump a little to have a cushion, an extra bottle here or there, but there were days we just skated by. There were even a few times I was able to race home on a break and feed her at the breast, saving a bottle for the next day and 20 minutes on the pump.
Assemble your key players.
I couldn’t have done it without a nanny who totally understood how hard I was working to exclusively breastfeed. She was always in constant touch with me, occasionally brought the baby to me at work to nurse, never tossed unused breast milk, and never soothed the baby with food unnecessarily.
I also had amazing coworkers, who if they didn’t value exclusive breastfeeding themselves, at least understood how important it was to me. They covered for me when I was pumping and understood it was a priority for me. I always got my work done, but I didn’t hesitate to ask for help when I needed it.
Helpful tips for any breastfeeding mom’s return to work:
- Breastfeed a lot from the start to ensure a full milk supply.
- Begin pumping a few weeks before your return to work to give yourself and your baby enough time to prepare for that transition and to store some milk without taking too much away from your newborn on a daily basis.
- Tune in to your baby’s routine so that you and your childcare provider have a game plan.
- Try to get a good night’s rest before your first day back.
- If you are returning to work full time, try to start on a Thursday so you have only two days to get through before the weekend to reconnect with your newborn and family.
- Pump regularly at work—at least every three hours.
- Get into a rhythm of pumping that works for you—multitasking or taking a break to eat or meditate while you pump.
- Advocate for yourself. If you are proud of yourself for breastfeeding, others will see how important it is to you and respect your choice to do whatever it takes to provide milk for your baby.