Breastfeeding & the Return to Work: B(r)e(a)st Practices

In line with National Breastfeeding Month, this week we are highlighting both the challenges and opportunities associated with breastfeeding and pumping during the return-to-work transition.  On a personal note, breastfeeding was hugely challenging for me.  I never produced much milk and found the whole experience to be exhausting.  I also experienced D-MER (Dysphoric Milk Ejection Reflect) when I nursed.  D-MER is characterized by negative emotions and depressive feelings occurring just before “let down” and lasts for up to a few minutes thereafter.  

I could write a book on all my breastfeeding challenges, but today I want to focus on the specific challenges I faced when returning to work.  At Josie, we thought this post was particularly timely given the recent AAP article increasing the recommended breastfeeding timeframe from one to two years.  While well-intentioned, the article can be hard to read for mothers like myself, who are already guilt-ridden for not being able to produce much breastmilk.  

Below are some of the challenges I faced with returning to work after my 12 weeks of maternity leave.  But before I go there, I want to acknowledge that in the grand scheme of things, I had it pretty good – an office with a dedicated pumping room, a relatively flexible schedule that I (mostly) felt in control of, and an understanding team. Many moms don’t have these arrangements, and there is so much more we could be doing to address the most foundational of elements.

I also recognize that my circumstances are unique – in 2018, I was both going into an office and traveling out of state to clients, which in a post-pandemic world is far less common.  That being said, as offices and airports pick up traffic, these mixed work environments are likely to re-surface for many working moms:

  • Managing pumping logistics while on the road.
    • Finding electrical outlets and private space.
      • I remember trying to find bathroom stalls near an outlet (the pump on battery power just wasn’t cutting it).  When available, I’d thread the power source through the bottom of the stall door and squat to pump – can you picture it? (editor’s note: please don’t.)
    • Transporting my milk and keeping it cool.
      • I never had many issues with airport security (although I know many do) but keeping the milk cool was always a challenge.  My co-worker suggested asking a food vendor for a cup of ice and dumping it into my cooler bag after getting through security. 
    • Finding pumping rooms in other cities.
      • Even though my own employer had great pumping space, I couldn’t control the situation at client sites.  My first work trip was to Chicago, just one week after my return from leave.  I was presenting at a client site and was one of 2 women in the building.  In the middle of our presentation, I felt my milk starting to leak (great timing – turns out we can’t just tell our bodies to work around our meeting schedules!)  I politely excused myself and thank goodness the other woman was there.  She guarded an unlockable supply closet while I pumped, half naked between the extra notepads and staples.
    • Lugging the pump around.
      • I loved my Medela pump but when you’re carrying it along with a laptop bag and carry-on suitcase, the love dwindles a bit. 
  • Managing pumping logistics at the office.
    • One pumping room for multiple mamas and double-bookings.
      • I worked in an office with a single pumping room for our staff.  It was largely sufficient given our size, but it just so happens I was pumping at the same time as the one other new mom in the office – so we would often need the room at the same time.  As breastfeeding moms know, missing a pumping session or getting off schedule can be incredibly stressful – especially for those of us with an already small supply
    • Meetings scheduled during pumping time.
      • With remote work and virtual meetings more the norm these days, this one (I hope) is not as big of an issue, but back in 2018 I did not push back on meetings scheduled over my desired pumping time.  I did not know how to advocate effectively for my pumping breaks, nor did I proactively block calendar time to prevent this from happening.  Being in client service, I still very much had the mindset of “clients’ calendars are more important than mine.”  I ended up just skipping pumping sessions as needed.
    • Lugging the pump around.
      • I walked about a mile to/from the office with laptop on one shoulder, pump on the other.  My employer did not have a pump in the office, and insurance only covered one.  That’s starting to change, and wearable pumps are much lighter to carry around than my trusty Medela. They are also incredibly liberating – as one team member recently shared:

“I remember I was so proud of myself having lunch and using the Elvie out by myself for the first time. It felt liberating to be able to pump and be on the go. I shared my experience with my mom’s group and they all cheered me on. It may seem silly to people who have not been in my shoes but it meant a lot to me at the time.”

  • Professional pumping wear
    • I remember just stripping down to pump in the office and thinking “if anyone opens this door, they are in for a treat!”  It’s not that maternity wear wasn’t available – there are so many options – but to find high quality, professional, affordable pieces was not easy.  Clothing was either cheap and not client-friendly, or too expensive for something I would no longer need in 6 months. 
  • Overcoming the guilt I had for a quickly dwindling supply.
    • Oh, the incredible let down (no pun intended) of seeing 2.5 ounces of milk after a 40-minute pumping session! It was a tremendous mental weight that I carried with me for many months after that return to work.

In hindsight, there was a lot of “didn’t know what I didn’t know,” and turns out there are a lot of things I could have done to make life easier (sign up here to receive our newsletter this Friday PM and get our Josie “Top 5 Tips for Pumping On-the-Road”).

And beyond being more proactive in logistics and planning, I’ve learned through the Josie program that some thoughtful reframing could have made a world of difference. 

Our coaching leaders said to me; how might things have been different if you said to yourself:

“This is a tough choice to pump, but it’s my choice.  I believe it is what’s best for me and my family – and I can make a different choice if my needs change.” 

That statement is so empowering, and I wish I had it as part of my new mama toolkit.

The other positive to highlight:  even the AAP acknowledges that women need more supports to breastfeed – including better workplace arrangements. 

We’ve noticed employers starting to up their game in support of breastfeeding moms, and some of the most progressive companies are finding creative ways to make an incredibly stressful situation much less so.  Here are 4 breast – er, best practices we found in our research:

  1. Companies like Discovery Channel and Alley are upping their pumping room game, including touches that go beyond a comfy chair and locked door – equipping rooms with hospital grade pumps, lockers to store equipment, new parent books and magazines, sound systems to play music, breast milk soap, mother’s milk tea, extra milk bags and supplies, etc. 
  2. Companies like Abbvie are offering milk delivery and shipping services such as Milk Stork to help moms who are pumping on the road
  3. Cisco Systems has established discussion groups that meet periodically for breastfeeding mothers, and offers $100 credit towards the purchase of breast pumps through their Corporate Lactation Services
  4. Ernst & Young offers free lactation consulting services to their new mothers

And, finally, airports are becoming friendlier places for breastfeeding moms – many now have nursing pods and pumping rooms (checkout “The Best Airline Seats, Suites, Lactation Rooms and Lounges When Breastfeeding” by The Points Guy).

Do you have a return-to-work breastfeeding story to share, or is your employer doing something innovative?  We want to know!  Send us a note at [email protected]!

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