Combining breastfeeding and the return to work by Emma Pickett

The first few weeks are often a blur for new mums. The learning curve is steep and you survive day to day – remembering to shower and put food in the fridge for yourself if you are lucky. For those mums still in the middle of that blur, the thought of the eventual return to work can be one that provokes anxiety.

You can’t imagine how it will feel to leave this new special person in your life.

How do you people cope with drop-offs to childcare and getting back to work after potentially several night-wakings?

What do you do if you don’t want to give up breastfeeding?

As a breastfeeding counsellor and lactation consultant, I’ve been supporting breastfeeding mums on their return to work for the last 7 years and there are a few things that are worth bearing in mind.

Here are my SIX top tips for returning to work as a breastfeeding mum.

  1. Don’t think about it.

Ok, now I don’t mean that too literally. My message is just that if you are going to take 6 months, 8 months or a year off work and you spend several months of that stressing about the return to work, you will be seriously missing out.

STOP yourself thinking about it too much. If you stare at your gorgeous three month old and think fleetingly, “How can I ever leave you?” (which is how nature very much wants you to feel), that is fair enough. But if you spend chunks of your maternity leave feeling anxious and worrying about practicalities, you will be wasting the special times you do have together.

This time is precious. Your baby now is not going to be the same person when you return back to work. They will sleep differently, feed differently, and interact differently. You will not be leaving THIS baby but an older one. So get your childcare sorted (which you may well have thought about in pregnancy anyway) and other than that, there’s not too much more to do! If you intend to express milk at work, it’s a good idea to write to your employer about 2 months before you go back to work to talk about arrangements. And then just carry on as normal. If your 4 month old baby won’t take a bottle and that starts you panicking because you have to go back to work at 8 months, don’t think about it. An 8 month old baby can breastfeed when you are with them in the morning and evening, take a sippy cup, drink from an open cup – you will have options. And a four month old baby that refuses a bottle may not if you try again after leaving it for a few weeks. It’s very easy to set yourself into a panic when the truth is that things usually work out with the right information and the right support.

  1. As mentioned, speak to your employer.

The recommendation is that you inform them that you will be returning to work as breastfeeding mum so they have a chance to assess your health and safety and what provisions you may need. Your employers are required to keep you safe. They also have a legal requirement to allow you to ‘rest’ as a breastfeeding mother. Sadly, in the UK, there is not a clearly established legal right to express breastmilk at work and it’s important you talk to your employer so they have advanced warning and you can come to an arrangement. Some women need to have break times re-organised or a room found. Although there is no ‘legal right’ the VAST majority of employers understand that it is in their interests to try and meet your needs and provide you with facilities. Your morale matters and a baby receiving breastmilk is less likely to suffer from illness meaning less time off work for you. There are health and safety executive recommendations and many employers understand the benefits of supporting you as much as possible. However, employers will be more likely to be accommodating if you give them warning and explain your needs clearly.

http://www.maternityaction.org.uk/sitebuildercontent/sitebuilderfiles/breastfeeding.pdf

http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=4703

  1. Talk through your schedule with a breastfeeding counsellor or lactation consultant.

Drop-ins are not just for people with problems with positioning and attachment. It’s really common for a mum to come along a few weeks before their return to work to talk about how they hope to organise their feeding and pumping schedule and how to organise things practically. I’ve included some typical scenarios later on.

  1. Practise pumping.

Is the breast pump you are using a home something you are familiar with? Do you have a backup if you need to pump at work? Is it worth sourcing a double pump if time is an issue or even hiring a hospital grade electric breast pump for a few months which can just stay at work? You’d be looking at paying less than £40 a month (http://www.ardobreastpumps.co.uk/breastpumps_for_hire)

There are tricks such as preparing the breast using massage and warm compresses. And we know that women who finish a pumping session using hand expression techniques can increase their output considerably.

http://lllrochester.weebly.com/uploads/7/9/5/4/795404/marmet_technique_tearoff.pdf

It’s also not a bad idea to build up a bit of a freezer stash before you go back. If you start pumping for one extra session each day and storing that in a freezer bag (store them flat and build up layers of thin flat bags which defrost more easily and take up less space), you will have some wiggle room if you need it. It’s not entirely predictable how pumping will go at work and some women find that their pumping output decreases towards the end of the week and then a weekend of normal breastfeeding boosts it back up again. If you have that freezer stash, it will take away some of their anxiety.

  1. Get your kit.

So you need a pump and some bottles and some breastmilk storage bags. What else? Surprisingly not much. You don’t need to store freshly expressed breastmilk in the fridge at work if you don’t want to. You can have a freezer block and an insulated bag and put any expressed milk in there. It is fine in that for 24 hours. So if you store it like that at work, put it in the fridge when you get home, then that milk can be given to your baby’s carer for the next day.

http://www.breastfeedingnetwork.org.uk/pdfs/BFNExpressing&Storing.pdf

It’s also really important to note, you don’t need to wash and sterilise the pump between pumping sessions. Breastmilk is fine at room temperature for up to 6 hours. So you don’t need to wash a pump between your 11am pumping session and your 2pm one. Lots of working mums use a technique called ‘wet-bagging’, putting a pump in a plastic bag between sessions and then putting it back in the fridge. Then simply take it out next time and wipe any wet parts with paper kitchen towel if you don’t fancy cold drips against you! This also saves precious time.

  1. Breastfeed when you can.

Your supply is more likely to be maintained if you breastfeed when you get the chance. Is your childcare near work or home? Could you visit your baby at lunchtime? Could you work from home for one day a week for the first few weeks? You could breastfeed early in the morning, then once more at drop-off, once more at pick-up and again at home later in the evening. Those 4 feeds would be enough breastmilk overall for a baby of 8 months or more. You may not need to be carrying bottles back and forth. And breastfeeding at the weekends and during holidays will help to boost your supply.

Here are the stories of three mothers:

Carla is going back to work full-time at 6 months. Her son is an enthusiastic exclusive breastfeeder and she’d like to avoid using formula if she can. When her son is 4 months old, she writes to her boss (she is a PA in a law firm) and explains she would like to express her milk at work. Her boss explains the company procedure of having a small office set aside for pumping and there is also a fridge available. Carla explains she intends to express around 3 times in the working day and one of those times will be during her lunch break. She has a double electric pump which she starts using from 4 months and she gives her son a bottle every other day to get him used to it. He usually takes 3-4oz from the bottle.

She starts solids around 10 days before she goes back to work and he takes small amounts initially and Carla knows his breastfeeding schedule will remain unaffected for a while. The week before she starts work, they visit the nursery together and he has a few hours there. He then has two trial days where Carla practises her expressing schedule and the nursery workers give him a bottle and some solids.

On her working day, she breastfeeds him as normal at 6am. She drops him off at nursery at 7.45am and offers again and he takes a small feed. At work she expresses at 11am, 1.30pm and 3.30pm. She collects her son from nursery at 6pm. They breastfeed at nursery. She breastfeeds him again at home at around 10pm as a dreamfeed. He wakes once at around 2am and she breastfeeds him again.

While he is at nursery, the carers give him bottles and offer solids and he usually takes around 12oz in total while they are separated. As he has 3 good breastfeeds in addition to that in 24 hours, Carla isn’t worried. Carla expresses more milk at work than her son takes in a bottle at the moment. Over the next few weeks, she moves to expressing only twice. Carla ends up offering exclusive breastmilk until 12 months and then she gradually introduces cow’s milk.

Phoebe is returning to work at 10 months. She is a graphic designer and works from home with some client visits necessary around London. Her daughter breastfeeds around 4 times in 24 hours and enjoys solids which she started at 6 months. Phoebe doesn’t enjoy pumping and finds it difficult so would rather avoid it if possible. She finds a child-minder who lives near her home. Phoebe breastfeeds at 8.30am and drops her daughter at the child-minder. If she is working from home she visits at lunchtime for another breastfeed. She then collects her daughter at around 4pm and takes her home to breastfeed at 6pm and around 11pm. While her daughter is at the child-minder, she eats solid food and drinks water. The child-minder doesn’t give her milk. When Phoebe has a client visit, she sometimes hand expresses for a few minutes into a plastic bag when she can grab a private moment. This is just to stay comfortable when she feels particularly engorged. This will help to reduce her risk of blocked ducts and mastitis and help to maintain her supply. She doesn’t keep the milk. Phoebe continues breastfeeding her daughter until she is 18 months old. At the end she is only breastfeeding in the morning and evening and Phoebe doesn’t feel the need to use any hand expression when they are separated.

Catherine is returning to work at 8 months. Her son breastfeeds around 6 times in 24 hours. He started solids at 6 months. He doesn’t particularly like bottles and usually only takes around 2oz max. Catherine finds that he will take more milk from an open cup called a doidy cup. He will also more likely to take it if she mixes the breastmilk with ripe banana and makes a smoothie. She works 4 days a week (and at 12 months will go back to being full time). Catherine is a teacher. Her headteacher has struggled to find her a private room for pumping but has given her the key to the medical room and if that is in use, she uses a stock cupboard. Usually the medical room is empty. Her colleagues have agreed to relieve her of playground duty while she is breastfeeding. She breastfeeds her son at 5.45am and again at 7.45am at the child-minder. She arrives at school at 8.15am. She expresses at 10.45am during morning break. She expresses for 10 minutes. She expresses again at lunchtime for 15 minutes and at around 4pm for another 10 minutes. She has to use a double pump as her pumping time is restricted. She remains at school for meetings and lesson preparation and collects her son at around 6pm. She breastfeeds him at 7pm and 10pm. He wakes to feed between 1-2am and Catherine is happy for that to continue for the time being as he feeds and goes back to sleep quickly.

With the child-minder, her son takes around 3oz of breastmilk in his smoothie, 2oz mixed into a porridge and another 1-2oz from his doidy cup. She also makes sure his solids contain good sources of fats and calcium. Sometimes she struggles to pump in her breaks as she really needs to continue working. She finds herself dipping into her freezer stash and as time goes on, the child-minder sometimes uses formula to make up the porridge. On the weekends and on her day off, he breastfeeds more frequently.

There are many women who effortlessly combine breastfeeding and working. If it sounds hard, remember that in the USA there is no statutory maternity leave and women often return to work after just a few weeks. However they have 16% of babies exclusively receiving breastmilk at 6 months and the UK manages 1% (http://www.cdc.gov/breastfeeding/pdf/2012BreastfeedingReportCard.pdf).

Working and breastmilk are not incompatible. With modern electric breast pumps and using breastfeeding support available locally and through the National Breastfeeding Helpline, it’s never been easier.

 Emma Pickett

Emma Pickett

About the Author

Emma Pickett IBCLC, Lactation Consultant and Breastfeeding Counsellor

After a career as a primary school teacher and Deputy Head in London, Emma had her own children and soon realised how much need there was for breastfeeding support among new parents. She initially trained as a Mother Supporter and Breastfeeding Counsellor with the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers (www.abm.me.uk) before going on to qualify as an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant in 2011. She volunteers in Haringey, North London at three drop-ins as well as answering calls on the National Breastfeeding Helpline and the ABM helpline. She is currently chair of the Association of Breastfeeding Mothers.

Her eBook, “You’ve Got It In You: a positive guide to breastfeeding” will be published later this year.

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