I went back to work after maternity leave when my first son was 8 months old, and when my second son was 7 months. I had exclusively breast fed both of them until I weaned them onto food at six months old, and continued to breast feed them after that – for my eldest until he was 20 months old, and I am still breastfeeding my youngest who is currently almost 14 months. For both returns to work I expressed breast milk at work so that the boys could be fed expressed milk from a bottle at home (and also so that my boobs wouldn’t explode during the day!) I have been asked a lot about how this all worked, and I wish there had been some more advice around about it when I did it, so hopefully this blog will answer some questions, and if you have any more then please do ask in the comments or over on my Instagram page.
How did you speak to work about it?
Every work place is different, but your best bet is to start with the HR department. It is a good idea to do this as far in advance of your expected return date as possible, in case there are any adjustments or arrangements that might need to be made in preparation. It might feel a bit embarrassing to talk about it but believe me they won’t think so – HR will have dealt with far more bizarre things before! Write it in an email so that you have a record of the request and the response and the arrangements made, and copy in anyone who you think might be relevant – if you have a head of department or line manager who might need to know about the new setup and what you plan to do. Be assertive in your email – you are informing them rather than asking permission – and if you already have some ideas about where/when you would like to do it then outline these from the start rather than having to bring them up later (e.g if you might want to rearrange a tea break time or block book a specific meeting room). It is a good idea to review the situation every three months in case there are any foreseeable changes and also so you don’t get forgotten about!
Where do you do it?
When it comes to the location, it’s very important to know exactly what counts as an appropriate area in which to express milk. It needs to be as clean and comfortable as possible. It cannot, I repeat: cannot, be a toilet. You wouldn’t believe the number of people (including me!) who have had bathrooms and toilets suggested to them as places to express. A general rule of thumb is that it needs to be sterile enough for you to be able to prepare food in there, as what you are looking for is an equivalent standard of hygiene as that is essentially what you are doing. This is also a good way to explain it to anyone who might need some further clarification on what kind of location to suggest. It must also be somewhere private – a locked door is essential, or at the very least clear signage that you must not be disturbed, and no one should be able to see into the room or area (this includes with CCTV, which is often overlooked). Doors with glass panels or windows without blinds or curtains can have sheets of paper taped over them or the equivalent over cameras for example. The first time around I expressed in my classroom (I am a secondary school teacher). The windows had blinds on them and the facilities team kindly added a blind to my door window. The classroom could be locked from the inside with a turnkey in the door. The second time I didn’t have my own classroom and was at first in a meeting room – with blinds over windows and doors and locked from the inside with ” do not disturb” on the door, then they installed CCTV in there and it was in use too often so I was moved to an office next door which had blinds over windows and doors and sheets of paper stuck over another glass paneled door. It is also useful for you to be near a bathroom or a sink as you will need to wash your hands before expressing to ensure the process is as hygienic as possible. It is important for everyone to be flexible and understanding – both you and your employer – as this will provide the best outcome for everyone and ensure communication around the subject remains positive.
How and where do you store the milk?
Wherever possible, it is best to refrigerate your breast milk in order to preserve it in the best condition you can before you can get it to a freezer/ready for your baby to drink. You will also need to think about keeping the milk chilled on the way home. If there is a fridge at work, then keeping your milk stored in there for as long as possible before you have to leave work is your best bet. If there is no fridge available or you have to travel around a lot and take the milk with you then you will need to keep it in a cool bag with freezer packs inside to keep it cold. I highly recommend getting yourself some kind of insulated lunch bag and one or two freezer packs that fit inside it – this is particularly helpful in case you are feeling a bit self conscious about storing your milk, as colleagues are highly unlikely to question a lunch bag being carried around or stored in the fridge! The safe milk storage guidelines are as follows:
- At room temperature: 4-6 hours
- In a cool bag with ice packs: 10-24 hours
- In the fridge: 3-5 days
- In the freezer: 3-6 months
Which breast pump do you use?
When do I express milk and how long does it take?
What should I wear to express?
This is entirely up to you and where you are expressing. If you have more privacy and/or don’t mind getting partially undressed to express milk then you can pretty much wear what you want! Generally speaking though, anything you can breast feed in you can usually pump in to. You don’t necessarily need to buy an entire new work wardrobe, just have a think about what you might already have that fits the criteria. Anything that can be undone at the front is particularly helpful! Another useful bit of kit is a breast pump bra. These are not essential but if you would prefer to be hands free (to eat your lunch, for example!) while you pump, then one of these will definitely come in handy and won’t cost the earth either.
How long will I need to express milk at work for?
This depends on how long you plan to breastfeed your baby for, how much they feed and how much milk you produce. With my first I carried on expressing at work until he was about a year and four months, which was around the time that I gradually phased out breastfeeding him during the day. Every baby is different though and my second seems to feed more – I also produce more milk this time around for some reason. When you do decide to stop, it’s important to do it gradually and in line with reducing your baby’s feeds at home to reduce your risk of mastitis.
How should I deal with any inappropriate comments at work?
No one should say or do anything that makes you feel uncomfortable with regards to expressing milk. Breastfeeding mothers are protected by law, and if this does occur then it is important that you report it to HR and/or whoever is in charge of staff safeguarding and well-being. If it is a recurring incident then make notes of times and dates. There is a strong chance that whoever is doing it has no idea of the negative impact of their words or actions, but regardless of that it doesn’t mean you should suffer in silence.
How do I increase my supply?
One major worry before returning to work is that you won’t produce enough milk. Chances are you may try pumping at home and get little more than a miserable dribble – the same happened to me and it is enough to throw you into utter panic. However, you must not despair! Pumping with your baby present, who you have most likely not long fed, is never going to produce very much milk. Pumping at work when you have been away from your baby for several hours will produce much more! In preparation for your return to work it is a good idea to take perhaps a few hours or days out when you leave your baby with someone else and you can pump before you see them again. This will enable you to store up some milk ready for when you do go back. The most effective way to increase your supply is to drink more water. This is the only proven method that has any significant effect. Stress hormones can also reduce supply, which is something to bear in mind (although preventing stress upon your return to work might be a different matter!) Another way to help get your let down reflex and milk flow going is to look at photos and videos of your baby while you express. In particular the sound of your baby’s voice triggers your let down reflex.
How can my partner support me with expressing?
Your partner can help in a number of ways, from washing and sterilising your pump kit to storing and freezing your milk, and often most importantly being positive and enthusiastically supportive of your efforts – or lending you a sympathetic ear if you need a bit of a rant about it. They won’t automatically know this though, so ask for any help you want or need to avoid feeling like you’re in this alone.
Last but not least
There will be times when you feel like you hate it, like you are already doing a million things as it is and that you feel like packing it all in. These are the times when you need the biggest reminder of why what you are doing is brilliant! Extended breast feeding has so many health benefits for both you and your baby and if you have come this far then you might as well continue for the final stretch – no one needs to pump at work for more than a few months, it won’t last forever. You are a hard working superstar mother and you are absolutely smashing bringing in an income AND feeding your baby! Excellent work mummy!!!