Breastfeeding and the Working Mother

Written by Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC and La Leche League Leader

We know what the studies say:  mothers who have to separate from their infants to return to the workplace are statistically less successful  (Johnson & Esposito, 2007) at meeting the goal recommended by child health promotion organizations around the globe:  exclusive breastfeeding until around the middle of the baby’s first year, thereafter supplemented with nutritionally sound, complimentary foods while breastfeeding continues through the child’s second year or beyond (World Health Organization, 2002).

This is not a significant issue for IBCLCs outside the United States, in nations where paid maternity leave is normal and expected after a mother has a baby; however, IBCLCs in the U. S. will likely find themselves in the position to counsel and assist mothers who wish to maintain a breastfeeding relationship with their infants after a return to work or school.  Reminding a mother that many mothers before her have been successful in continuing to breastfeed after regular separations from their babies and providing practical suggestions can be valuable.

Direct breastfeeding is best for mother and baby.

This is always my first tenet of support when I’m helping a mother who has to separate from her baby.  Is there any way for the mother to spend more time in her baby’s presence?

  • Can maternity leave be extended, or can the mother return to work on a gradual/partial basis (for example, half days; or back 2 days the first week, 3 days the 2nd week, and so on)?
  • Can the baby be brought to work with his mother?  There are workplaces that have experimented with this option and found it to be a win-win alternative.  The Parenting in the Workplace Institute offers some details.
  • Is the daycare on-site or close enough to mother’s workplace that she can breastfeed her baby during her lunch or other breaks?  Keep in mind that Federal legislation, as part of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act supports break time for nursing mothers.
  • Can the baby be brought to visit his mother one or more times during her workday?  Even one breastfeeding session during the separation can make a difference in how much milk continues to be produced long-term.

But I have to travel for my job!

While Transportation Security Administration rules permit a mother to travel with her pumped breastmilk when she is not traveling with her child, a more lactation-friendly alternative is to bring baby along and breastfeed whenever possible – often, this is more frequently than when mother is at her home office.  It has been reported that Julie Andrews, while on location to film The Sound of Music, had her toddler on site with a caregiver.  This was a sensible solution in 1964 and can still work today!

Even if I give my job 75% and my baby 75%, that still adds up to 150% and I’m exhausted!

As an IBCLC, I support a mother in her efforts to breastfeed her baby; this can include practical tips for a new family.

  • If there is a support person at home (baby’s father, mother’s partner, other family member), is he or she in agreement that breastfeeding is the best course of action for mother and baby?  This person and others close to the mother will have a tremendous impact on the choices she makes.
  • Remind the family that when mother is not at work, her #1 priority is to care for the baby; this means everyone must pitch in to care for the mother and the household.
  • Safely sharing sleep with her baby as detailed here can ensure a mother gets some rest (though likely not as much as she desires or needs unless she can modify her work situation or her baby gets older) and meet the nutritional and attachment needs of her baby.

Some breastfeeding is better than no breastfeeding.

If a mother can’t employ the tips shared above and struggles to express enough milk to meet her baby’s needs, remind her that she can still pump what is feasible for her – every drop her baby gets is a precious gift.  She can also continue to enjoy the breastfeeding relationship when she is with her baby, even if he has been partially weaned to commercially-prepared baby milk.

Finding her tribe.

When a breastfeeding mother returns to work, she may feel stuck between two worlds; her heart is with her baby but her mind is on her job.  The other breastfeeding mothers she knows stay home with their babies and the mothers at her workplace weren’t successful at combining employment outside the home with breastfeeding.  If enough of your clientele combines working and breastfeeding, perhaps you can host a monthly discussion group (in the evening, baby required for admission!) where mothers can share their strategies in your presence (and you can moderate comments to ensure everyone leaves with sound information).  If your breastfeeding and employed population is smaller, see if one or two mothers who have been particularly successful at the balancing act might be willing to serve as a resource to other mothers embarking on the journey.

Turn your frustration into advocacy!

If you’ve seen too many overwhelmed mothers give up breastfeeding because the “otherhood” complicates new motherhood, take action.  In her Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding, U. S. Surgeon General Regina Benjamin encourages us to “work toward establishing paid maternity leave for all employed mothers” (United States Department of Health and Human Services, 2011).  A letter to your elected officials at every level will keep this issue on the table.  Breastfeeding protects the health of babies and their mothers; we are called to protect breastfeeding in any way we can.

Johnston, M. L. & Esposito, N. (2007).  Barriers and facilitators for breastfeeding among working women in the United States.  Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 36: 9–20.  doi: 10.1111/j.1552-6909.2006.00109.x

United States Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Surgeon General. (2011). The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Support Breastfeeding.  Washington, D. C.

World Health Organization. (2002). Global strategy on infant and young child feeding. 

Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC and La Leche League Leader, enjoys writing to share breastfeeding information with mothers and those who support them.  In addition to her frequent contributions to La Leche League International’s publication Breastfeeding Today, Diana blogs about normalizing breastfeeding in American culture at and has been a guest blogger at Best for Babes and The Leaky Boob.  Diana can be found lecturing at breastfeeding education events around the United States.  She is pursuing a Master of Public Health, and upon graduation hopes to work in public service as an advisor to policymakers in maternal/child health and nutrition.  Mother to three breastfed children, Diana has served as a clarinetist on active military (Army) duty in the West Point Band since 1995.

If you want to link to Diana’s Breastfeeding Today article on breastfeeding and working, (mothers are the target audience) it’s here.


10 Responses to Breastfeeding and the Working Mother

  1. Elizabeth Brooks 26 January 2012 at 13:36 #

    Thank you for this wonderful piece, Diana, summarizing the issue, and providing tangible options for the IBCLC to support the breastfeeding mother working outside the home.

    • Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC 26 January 2012 at 20:15 #

      Thanks, Liz! This is a topic of special interest for me as a mother who continued to breastfeed after I returned to work. I am thankful for the opportunity to share information that helps get “outside the box” thinking to mothers who find themselves in this situation.

  2. ambermccann 26 January 2012 at 14:49 #

    What an excellent resource! I find all of Diana’s writing to be clear, well-researched and exactly on the cusp of what our profession is interested in.

    • Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC 26 January 2012 at 20:16 #

      Thanks, Amber! You’re very kind. I hope IBCLC’s find this helps them in their practice.

  3. Robin Kaplan 26 January 2012 at 15:46 #

    Diana, this is such a helpful article! I work with many mew mothers going back to work for the first time after baby and I am excited to share this information with them. I recently published a blog article, from the mother’s perspective on my blog, which the readers may find helpful as well! It’s called, So, You’re Going Back to Work (

    • Diana Cassar-Uhl, IBCLC 26 January 2012 at 20:17 #

      Thanks for the opportunity to write, Robin! Thanks also for sharing your blog piece — it’s a great perspective.

  4. Robyn Roche-Paull, BS, IBCLC, LLLL 26 January 2012 at 19:02 #

    As always Diana, you hit the nail on the head! Bravo for another wonderful piece and for continuing to support working mothers everywhere. I am going to post this on my blog for all the IBCLC’s that work with military moms, and incorporate what you have said here in my talks to HCPs that work with AD military mothers. THANK YOU!

  5. Michelle 28 January 2012 at 00:08 #

    Found this through Motherlove Herbal Company’s Facebook and I’m so glad I did. I return to work in 2 weeks so we can have health insurance. Baby will be home with daddy but I’m still dealing with plenty of mommy guilt. Trying to plan out in my head when to pump while I’m at work.

  6. Katy Linda, IBCLC 28 January 2012 at 18:58 #

    Thank you for such a great piece Diana!! Very helpful and informative as always 🙂

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