Pumping at Work

Let’s just be honest for a moment –pumping at work can be really hard work! When I took my son for his 9-month check-up at the clinic and the nurse told me I was “so lucky” to still be breastfeeding, I nearly burst out laughing. It’s not luck, my dear lady (well, not much) – it’s effort. Hours and hours of pumping and reading and learning and praying. One thing was true, though: the more I read and learned, the more tips and tricks I got to make the whole process a bit easier. So I’ve summed up all my collected wisdom on this page in the hope of helping a few more women win this battle.

Pumping at work

The set-up

You basically need two things to allow you to provide milk for your baby: a way to get the milk out of your breast, and a place to do it. Within each of those there is a world of different options and a lot of flexibility. Let’s look:

The pump

If you know nothing about the different types of pumps out there, start with this post and then come back.

As I’ve said before, with pumps, it’s nice to try before you buy. The important thing is to have a pump that works for you. For most women, a good quality double electric pump gets the most milk in the shortest time. But don’t immediately run out and spend a couple of grand on a fancy pump – many, many women do just fine (or even better) on a single electric pump, manual pump, or even no pump! Here’s a summary of how the different pumps measure up for a working mom:

Pump type Pro’s Cons Verdict
Double electric pump
  • Quick
  • More stimulation
  • Hands-free if you use a “pumping bra
  • Expensive
  • Dependent on electricity
Good for most women, if you have the money, but a cheaper option might do just as well. You need to have a backup for the inevitable power failures!
Single electric pump
  • More affordable
  • Most have battery backup
  • At least one hand free
  • Most of them do not handle the strain of high pumping volumes well – the motors often burn out after a few months
Best if you only need to express once a day (e.g. half-day jobs) – otherwise go for double electric or manual.
Manual pump
  • Most affordable pumps
  • You have total control over speed and suction
  • No need to worry about power failures
  • You always need to use at least one hand
  • It takes a bit of practice and concentration to learn what works for you
This is a great place to start, especially if you can borrow one or two different types to try out. I personally used a manual pump because I liked how it gave me much more control than an electric pump.
Hand expressing
  • There’s nothing that can break or that you can forget at home
  • Hands are the best at getting the last drops of milk out
  • You need to learn to do it properly (see here)
  • It can be tiring
  • No hands-free option
Learn to hand express regardless of what you plan to do. Sooner or later you will forget some vital piece of your pump at home, and then you will be glad!

Not sure how to use a breast pump? check out this post for all the basics.

 The place

undercover pumping

Pumping undercover with a hands free pumping bra – no one has to see!

Obviously, you will need to negotiate with your employer to give you a place to pump. Ideally, you want a room with a comfy chair, a power outlet if you have an electric pump, and a door you can lock. But be prepared to be creative: Maybe a friend has a private office that she’ll let you use, or maybe there’s a seldom-used storeroom where you can park a chair. I even know a few women who pump in a shared office just by using a breastfeeding cover or a wide shirt to cover the pump (be sure to check with your co-workers before trying this!) If all else fails, you can even ump in your car. But I draw the line at pumping in the bathroom – that’s just gross.



Preparing to go back to work

It’s a good idea to practice a bit before you go back to work, to make sure you can use the pump and to get a bit of milk in the freezer as a back-up. A few weeks before, begin to express a bit of milk and freeze it. Do not be discouraged if you only get a few millilitres of milk at this stage – remember, baby is still taking all his/her feeds from the breast, so you’re only pumping off the leftovers! Once you are pumping at work to replace a missed feed, you will get a lot more out. If you pump a few times a day, you will start to get better output within a few days. Again, don’t become obsessed with building a massive freezer stash – it is just the emergency backup, it’s not your source for milk every day.

Now is also a good time to teach baby to drink from a bottle. It is very, very important that you do not introduce a bottle before breastfeeding is well established – this usually takes about 6 weeks. When you are ready to introduce a bottle, it is always best to ask someone else to do it. The reason for this is two-fold: firstly, you want baby to associate mommy with breastfeeding, so that baby doesn’t start to prefer the bottle to the real thing. But the second reason is usually the more important one: most babies prefer the familiar breast to the unfamiliar bottle, and they’re not going to settle for a plastic teat when the real thing is right there! Whenever your baby drinks from a bottle, it is important to bottle-feed in a way that supports breastfeeding. This may involve some training of your baby’s day care provider, granny, daddy and anyone else who needs to feed the baby – please see this post that explains exactly how to bottle feed your breast-fed baby!)

Back at work

Your working-day routine may look something like this:

  • In the morning before you leave, be sure to breastfeed baby – if he starts out with a full tummy, you will need a bit less milk during the day.
  • During the work day, you will likely need to express 2-3 times. This involves a bit of trial and error until you find out how many times and for how long you need to express to provide the milk that your baby needs. Most women find that they need to express at least every 3 hours to prevent a drop in milk production, so try to schedule you breaks not more than three hours apart.
  • Store the milk that you express today for baby to drink tomorrow. (Today, baby is drinking the milk you expressed yesterday). We’ll talk about how you store the milk in a minute.
  • When you get home from work, baby will very likely want to breastfeed immediately as a way to say hello and reconnect with you.
  • During the evening and night, and on the weekend, breastfeed on demand. It is important not to limit the amount of time baby spends at the breast, because he will make up for anything he missed during the day.

How to store and transport your breast milk

Unlike formula, breast milk has quite a long shelf life – those same anti-bacterial compounds that keep your baby healthy also help to keep the milk fresh.

Most of the time you will be storing your milk in the fridge. Breast milk will be fine at room temperature for a few hours: if it’s hot (above 25 degrees Celsius) don’t keep it out for more than 4 hours, but in cooler weather it will be fine for up to 6-8 hours. In the fridge, you can keep the milk for 5-8 days, depending on how cold your fridge is (Remember to always store you milk at the back of the fridge, not in the door – the door is the warmest part of the fridge!). The long fridge-life is good news: the milk you express on Friday will keep perfectly well in the fridge until Monday, so there’s no need to freeze it. If in doubt about whether a bottle of milk is still okay, just smell or taste it – you will immediately know if it is off!

For travel between work, home and day-care, you can use a cooler bag with and ice brick – although, in all honesty, if the milk is going to be out of the fridge for only 15 minutes, I don’t even bother.

Finally, you can also freeze your breast milk. I recommend using the freezer to store your “emergency back-up” stash and using fresh refrigerated milk for every day. Freezing and defrosting milk every day is just far too much effort. The anti-infective compounds in breast milk also decrease over time even in the freezer, so fresh milk is always best (although, of course, even long-frozen breast milk is still a better deal than formula!) There are many, many types of fancy bottles and baggies on the market for freezing breast milk. In reality, you can use any food-grade plastic or glass containers to freeze your milk. Personally I prefer to use glass, because it seems every time we open the paper there’s a new concern about potentially harmful substances in plastic. My second choice is to freeze the milk in an ice-cube tray and, as soon as it is frozen, pop out the ice-cubes and put them in a different container. An added benefit of using and ice-cube tray is that the milk is immediately in nice small portions.

Not all freezers are equally cold, so the type of freezer you use affects how long you can freeze your milk:

  • “Ice box” in the fridge: up to 2 weeks
  • Upright freezer with its own door: up to 3-4 months (store the milk in the back away from the door!)
  • Deep freeze or chest freezer: up to 6 months (some sources even say 12 months)

When you want to thaw frozen breast milk, the easiest method is to place the container of frozen milk in a bowl of hot water or under a running hot water tap. Never use the microwave; it destroys many of the beneficial compounds in the milk. Once frozen breast milk has been thawed, you should use it within 24 hours.

When to stop pumping at work

It’s a very personal decision for how long you want to continue pumping at work. Some women pump only for a month or two, others continue for years. Only you will be able to judge at what point the effort and frustration of pumping begins to outweigh the benefits to your baby.

Of course, when you are ready to stop pumping, it doesn’t have to mean the end of breastfeeding! Even after I stopped pumping at work, my son and I continued to enjoy breastfeeding for a very long time. When you stop pumping during the day, your breasts will quickly figure out that they don’t need to produce as much milk, and you will be able to go through the day without even becoming uncomfortable. And amazingly, there’s still enough milk in the evenings that baby can breastfeed quite happily.

And the day that you finally pack away your pump for good, give yourself a large pat on the back: you have done a great thing for your child.

Breast Pumps and Business Suits: A Practical Guide to Breastfeeding and Working

Want to know more about breastfeeding as a working mom? Check out my e-book, Breast Pumps and Business Suits. It contains absolutely everything you need to know about making a success of breastfeeding and working! Click here for more info.

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