A Guide to Nursing at Work
Breastfeeding is overwhelming enough as it is, and having to do it at work while juggling meetings and commutes is a whole other story.
Even if you have a supportive employer, workplaces can be full of obstacles for new parents who are breastfeeding. Finding the time to pump throughout the day, lugging around pumping equipment and dealing with painful, leaking breasts (all while fitting in time to work) make breastfeeding at work both emotionally challenging and labor-intensive.
But returning to work doesn't have to mean the end of breastfeeding. The key is to prepare yourself (and your baby) for the transition. Need help figuring out how to breastfeed and work? Keep reading for the ultimate guide.
Know your rights for pumping at work
Before returning to work, the first step is to know your rights as a nursing parent. Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) requires employers to provide basic accommodations for breastfeeding parents.
The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law says all employers with 50 or more employees must allow:
- Reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for one year after the child's birth and as often as the employee needs. However, your employer isn't required to pay you for these breaks.
- A private place to pump (other than a bathroom) that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers or the public.
This law applies to most hourly employees and some salaried employees. Many states also have laws that protect breastfeeding employees, so if you're not covered by federal law, you might be covered under your state law.
If you travel a lot for work, you're allowed to travel with breast pumps and breast milk in your carry-on bag. Although breast milk isn't included in the 3.4-ounce liquid limit, you'll have to let a TSA agent know that you're carrying breast milk because it will have to be screened separately (don't worry, the X-ray machine won't spoil the milk). You should also know that TSA agents aren't allowed to make you open your breast milk containers.
Pick the right equipment
Before you head back to the office, whether virtually or in person, you'll need all the right gadgets to pump at work.
The first step is to choose a breast pump, which can be hospital-grade, manual, wearable or electric. The breast pump you choose may depend on several factors, including your budget and personal needs. It's a good idea to speak to your doula or a lactation consultant to choose the best pump for you.
Other factors to consider when you choose a pump are how discreet, loud and portable it is. If you can spare the cash, you might want to buy two pumps, one to keep in the office and the other to leave at home to save you the hassle of lugging a bag of equipment around every day. Some insurance plans cover the cost of a breast pump, so it's worth double-checking with your insurer.
Once you've found the best breast pump for you, you'll also need:
- Milk storage bags
- A cooler bag for transportation and safe storage
- Nursing pads
- A change of clothes in case of leakage
- Sanitizing wipes
Discuss your needs with your employer before returning to work. Whether you work from home or the office (or a hybrid of the two), confirm that you'll be given the time to pump as often as you need throughout the day.
"The biggest challenge to breastfeeding mothers returning to work is figuring out how to manage all three jobs: motherhood, breastfeeding and career. If an employer doesn't have an adequate lactation space, it instantly puts all of these into a tailspin," said Abbey Donnell, founder of Work & Mother, a network of breastfeeding suites based in Houston.
"Parents should expect to have the law on their side when it comes to breastfeeding rights in the workplace [and] have a strong understanding of what their legal rights are," Donnell said. "But beyond that, they need to have an open conversation with their employers about what they can expect those accommodations to look like, and to ensure that their employers are aware of the legalities around pumping in the workplace."
If you are going back to the office, scope out the space where you will pump. Some companies have lactation suites specifically designed for nursing parents, but if that doesn't apply to your workspace, you'll at least need a private space with a comfy chair and an electrical outlet for your pump.
"Unfortunately, too many workspaces or commercial properties simply refurbish a closet or utility room and find this to be a suitable space to express milk," Donnell explained. "To be able to pump efficiently, your body needs to be relaxed, so it's important that the space offers adequate privacy and is calming. It should also have an outlet, a surface for the pump, access to running water and refrigeration."
It's also a good idea to practice pumping at home before returning to work. There's a learning curve to pumping milk and you don't want your first experience to be in the office. Equally, you'll have to give your baby time to adjust to a bottle. Ease into the change by pumping while at home and bottle-feeding your baby. While you're at it, try building up a supply of breast milk to store in advance in your freezer in the weeks leading up to your return to work, just in case.
Make a schedule
"You need to be mentally prepared for your return to work, and if still breastfeeding, this can be an emotional hurdle itself," said Siobhan Miller, founder of the Positive Birth Company in the United Kingdom. "It's the end of one chapter and the start of another, and there is a preparation period to consider when returning to work. You and your baby will be used to feeding on demand or at a scheduled time. When returning to work, you'll want to consider a pumping pattern that ensures the continuity of your supply."
Creating a schedule can make pumping at work that much easier. Block out time for your pumping breaks on your calendar and mark yourself as unavailable so colleagues know not to schedule meetings during that time.
"Make your team aware of the times you will need to pump, how long you will be away from your desk and block that time in your diary as busy. Transparency and communication are key. You're not going on a smoking break, you're feeding your baby," Miller said.
How often you need to express milk varies from person to person, but keep in mind that babies like to feed often. If you plan to breastfeed your baby before going to work in the morning, you'll likely have to pump every three to four hours to mimic your baby's feeding pattern.
How to store breast milk at work
Now that you've worked out when and where to pump, the next step is to figure out where to store the milk. If you work from home, you can rely on your fridge, but if you work in an office, things might be a bit trickier.
Aside from storing your pumped milk during the day, you also need to safely transport that milk back home to your baby. Freshly expressed breast milk can be stored at room temperature (77 degrees or colder) for up to four hours and in a fridge for up to four days.
If you don't have access to a fridge at work—or would just rather not have your breast milk chill next to your co-worker's lunch—you can store it in an insulated cooler bag with an ice pack and refrigerate it as soon as you get home. Make sure to label each milk container with the date you pumped it.
Cleaning your breast pump at work
To properly clean your breast pump kit after use, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends you follow these instructions:
- With clean hands, disassemble the pump kit and put all the pump parts that have come into contact with your breast or breast milk into a basin (not the sink).
- Add hot water and soap, and scrub the parts according to the manufacturer's guidelines.
- Rinse under running water or in a separate basin filled with clean water.
- Air-dry the parts on a clean towel.
- Store the parts only after they've dried completely.
If your breast pump kit is dishwasher-safe and you have access to one during the day, you can wash them on the top rack of the dishwasher in a hot water cycle. Make sure to read the manufacturer's guidelines first.
If you don't have access to a dishwasher or clean countertop space at work, some breast pump kits can be microwaved to clean them between sessions. Alternatively, it's always a good idea to carry breast pump wipes with you if you're in a pinch, but you should still thoroughly clean the pump when you get home.
What employers should know
Pumping at work is a lot more overwhelming than many employees realize, Donnell said.
"I think many employers and managers don't realize how much the emotional and mental toll can have on an employee if they're constantly worried about the logistics and their privacy when trying to continue breastfeeding after returning to work," she explained.
"Furthermore, breastfed babies tend to have fewer illnesses than formula-fed babies, which can help reduce absences to care for sick children and also reduce healthcare premiums," Donnell concluded.