Many women return to paid work before they’re ready to stop breastfeeding. This can raise all sorts of feelings, ranging from acceptance to sadness, disappointment and even resentment. Don’t assume you need to stop breastfeeding when you go back to work.
Changes to the law surrounding equal opportunity and discrimination have meant that workplaces need to support breastfeeding women.
With a bit of planning and organisation, it’s entirely possible to return to paid work and continue to breastfeed.
It can help to be flexible in finding a routine which works for your individual circumstances. It’s common for women to still breastfeed in the mornings and evenings when they’re with their baby and to express their breast milk so their baby can have expressed breast milk (EBM) when they’re at work.
Many babies are ‘mixed’ fed and thrive on a combination of breastfeeding, EBM and/or formula.
Babies aged from around six months of age, who aren’t breastfeeding as frequently and are having solids, can go for longer periods without needing to be fed. But all babies need to have fluids - either milk or water - when they’re apart from their mother for more than a few hours.
How can I return to work and still breastfeed?
During the planning stages of your return to work, speak with your line manager and human resource department all possible options around return-to-work programs. These may include part time, reduced hours and home-based work. Many workplaces offer a combination of arrangements – it can pay to be creative and ask for what you want in the early planning stages. Even if you’ve never considered anything other than full time work, this could be the time when you need to adjust your working arrangements to suit your family’s needs.
Parents often find a renewed sense of motivation around potentially difficult conversations in making decisions which affect their children.
- If possible, arrange daycare which is close to your workplace so you can continue to breastfeed your baby. You might even be able to have your baby brought to your work for feeds.
- Speak with your line manager about how your workplace supports breastfeeding women. Ask about where you could go to breastfeed or express which is private. Have a plan for your lactation breaks and how and where you’ll store your EBM and transport it home. You may like to organise a sign for the room you are breastfeeding in, to let others know you need privacy.
- Chat with friends, family and work colleagues who’ve had similar experiences of returning to work and continued to breastfeed. Often, the best ideas come from those with lived experiences.
- Research breast pump options and decide what’s best for you. Pumps come in a range of styles and functions – manual, electric or battery operated.
- Start expressing your breast milk and have a ‘bank’ of milk in the freezer. Check here for safe storage guidelines.
- Become familiar with sterilisation options for bottles and pump equipment. Pack what you need the night before to avoid the early morning rush. It can help to have spares of bottles and EBM bags at work in case they’re needed.
- Take an item of your baby’s clothing and a photo of them to have close by when you’re expressing. This may help your ‘let-down’ reflex to be activated which will make expressing more efficient.
- If your baby isn’t used to bottle feeding, it would be wise not to wait until just before you return to work to introduce your baby to a bottle. If your baby hasn’t had a bottle before, they’ll need some time and practice to learn what’s involved. Some babies prefer specific teats and bottles, so allow some time to trial your baby on a few different ones. Many babies who are happily breastfeeding protest when they’re first offered a bottle. Try with some EBM when they’re hungry and due for a breastfeed.
- Sometimes breastfed babies accept bottles more readily when it’s offered by other adults. Others experience separation anxiety when they’re not held by their mum during feeds – work out what’s right for you and your little one.
- Some breastfed babies prefer to drink from a sippy or straw cup rather than a bottle. You could try offering your baby some EBM or formula from a cup so they learn what’s involved.
- Reconsider your working wardrobe. Wear shirts or dresses with buttons down the front so you don’t have to semi undress to access your breasts when expressing.
A couple more things…
Spend some time thinking about the physical and emotional separation from your baby you’re going to experience. It can take weeks for mothers who’ve returned to paid work to adjust to being away from their baby.
Speak with your baby’s daycare providers and make sure they know you’re keen to keep breastfeeding. Follow their guidelines for where to store your EBM and make sure this is clearly labelled with the date and your baby’s name. It may help to offer your baby a breastfeed just before you leave them with their carer. Ask what, in their experience, works well for mothers in a similar situation.
Expect to have a different perspective around your work and responsibilities. Babies have a way of helping their parents to reprioritise what is important. You’ll likely feel differently about work and its importance in your life. You’re also more likely to become a better time manager at work. This would be because you’ll have learned new skills in becoming more time efficient, but also, you won’t have the same pre-baby capacity for getting off late or working overtime.
Do what you can to manage your baby’s night waking and overnight breastfeeding before you return to work. It’s easy for breastfeeding mothers to slip into habits of feeding their baby lots of times overnight to ‘compensate’ for missed feeds during the day.
Speak with your Child Health Nurse about ways to support your baby to settle independently and stop breastfeeding overnight if they’re old enough.
Written for GAIA by Jane Barry, Midwife and Child Health Nurse, September 2022.