Working It Out: Combining Lactation and Employment

Breastfeeding and chestfeeding parents who are part of the workforce face unique challenges. If you are one of them, you have made an excellent choice for yourself and your baby! Below, experienced International Board Certified Lactation Consultant® (IBCLCs®) provide their best advice for combining lactation and employment. 

For many of us, how and where we work, and how safe we feel at work, are changing rapidly in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. Much of the advice below applies regardless of when and how you are returning to work, and we have also included tips that are more specific to this point in time.

Be Mentally Prepared. Lactation and employment can absolutely be combined, and parents the world over do it successfully every day. However, it’s important to prepare yourself for the reality that working while breastfeeding is a demanding role. “Congratulations on your decision to provide your milk to your baby while you go back to work!” says Betsy Hoffmeister, IBCLC. “Working and breastfeeding/chestfeeding parents really have two jobs, which can be particularly exhausting.” Give yourself credit for how hard you are working. Reduce other stresses in any way you can. Do not be afraid to ask for help, and be willing to let other priorities go for a time.

Know Your Rights. Depending on where you live, laws may safeguard and facilitate your choice to pump at work. “Some countries provide protections for working parents,” Tori LaChapelle Sproat, IBCLC, points out. “That is worth looking up.” In the United States, for example, an employer with more than 50 employees legally must provide a private, non-bathroom space with a refrigerator and a sink for pumping parents. Lactating parents in the Philippines are entitled by law to a minimum of 40 minutes to pump or nurse per eight-hour work period, and employers are mandated to provide an appropriate lactation station. Other countries, like Greece, have laws against requiring nursing parents to work overnight until their baby is 12 months old.

Inform Your Employer. When you know you will be pumping at work, the time to get everyone on the same page is before your baby arrives. “Talking to your employer prenatally is essential,” advises Tori LaChapelle Sproat, IBCLC. “I’ve found in working with parents in a variety of fields, from military to office to restaurants, that having this conversation while pregnant helps a lot.” What should you plan to discuss? Present a proposed pumping schedule and plan to talk about how it will fit into the demands of your particular job. “The strategies that work for one type of job might not be the ones that work in another industry,” notes Cathy Carothers, IBCLC. If you live in the United States, the Office on Women’s Health website offers tips on how to make it work in your particular job setting. As you return to work at a time of heightened risk and concern, it is especially important to discuss this with your employer. Certain work settings (for example, health care workers who must stay in layers of personal protective equipment throughout their shift) make it more challenging to pump, and you may want this taken into consideration as your supervisor(s) decide how to assign you. 

Stay Safe. As the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic, you may have concerns about how this may affect expressing milk for your baby. Fortunately, research so far shows that COVID-19 is not transmitted via human milk – although antibodies are, which likely provide babies with protection. When pumping at work, as always use good hygiene practices by washing your hands, handling pump parts carefully, and cleaning parts thoroughly.

Make the Case. Another good move during your meeting with your employer: Present the “good business” case for breastfeeding. Let your boss know that your choice to provide your milk for your baby will also benefit them! “The Business Case for Breastfeeding is an absolutely brilliant website you can share with your employer explaining how much money they will save by supporting you in pumping for your baby,” Hoffmeister says. 

Gather Knowledge. What is the best pump for your situation? How many times during a workday should you express your milk? How much milk should you leave each day for your baby? Parents who pump will need to answer these questions, and more. Learning as much as you can before your baby comes is key. Two great ways:  Attending a local and/or online parent-to-parent support group meeting prenatally, and scheduling a prenatal IBCLC consult. “Find a lactation consultant and talk about pumping logistics for while you are at work, hands-on pumping, when to start collecting milk after having your baby, and be sure you are properly fitted for a pump,” LaChapelle Sproat offers. 

Be Flexible. Many people who did not expect to be working from home are now doing so for an indefinite period of time. If you are working from home, and your baby is also home with you, you may not be sure how you want to manage feeding and pumping. Does it make sense to pump if your baby is just in the next room? Sometimes it might – if there are times you can’t be interrupted, it may be easier to pump beforehand and leave a bottle for whenever your baby needs it. At more flexible times, it may be easier to skip all the steps of pumping plus cleaning parts and bottles and just nurse your baby. Keep in mind that babies who no longer receive a bottle can lose interest in it. If you would like to keep your baby used to bottles – especially if you anticipate work-from-home ending at some point soon – it’s a good idea to give a few bottles a week.

Know Your Magic Number. Paying attention to how many times you breastfeed or pump during your parental leave (if you have one) gives you a good baseline when choosing how many times to pump at work. If you drop below your “Magic Number,” you may have difficulties keeping your milk supply going strong. “Keep an eye on how many milk removals (breastfeeds plus pumps) you do in a day,” says Nancy Morbacher, IBCLC. “Keeping that ‘Magic Number’ steady after you go back to work should prevent a dip in milk production.”

Educate Your Caregiver. Lastly, make sure the person who will care for your baby while you are working understands the nuances of feeding a breastfed baby. They will need to know proper handling techniques for human milk and be familiar with how to give your baby a bottle in an appropriate way. “Paced bottle feeding” is a good technique to know. “Avoid over-feeding when using a bottle, so that the parent can keep up with the baby’s needs when separated,” advises Laura Spitzfaden, IBCLC. 

An IBCLC can reassure you when breastfeeding and lactation are going well, and provide information and support to help prevent and manage common concerns. Learn more and find an IBCLC in your community here.

Find an IBCLC to help with your questions about lactation and employment or your other breastfeeding questions.

An International Board Certified Lactation Consultant® (IBCLC®) is a healthcare professional who specializes in the clinical management of breastfeeding. 

An IBCLC can reassure you when breastfeeding and lactation are going well, and provide information and support to help prevent and manage common concerns. Learn more and find an IBCLC in your community here.

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