If you go back to work after maternity and parental leave, it doesn’t mean you have to stop breastfeeding. With good planning and communication, your baby can continue to benefit from your breast milk.
Balancing work and home life is often not easy when planning your return to work after parental leave. You may feel torn between the feeling of leaving your baby behind and the need to earn money, or the desire to continue working in your profession and pursuing your career.
If you are breastfeeding and want to continue to do so, you should also consider how to maintain your milk production and ensure that your baby gets your breast milk even when you are not around. Most of the time, that means pumping breast milk at work, keeping it safe, and then transporting it safely home for the caregiver to give to your baby.
What are the benefits of continuing to breastfeed after returning to work?
Going back to work can be very difficult if you have spent many weeks or months intensively with your newborn baby. Continuing to breastfeed is one way to preserve the important bond between you and your baby and ease the transition for both of you into a new routine.
Breastfeeding can also be a nice way to reconnect when you’ve been away for a while, as Peggy, mother of a daughter from Switzerland, finds: "I went back to work when Penelope was six months old. At that point, I was still nursing her just before I went to the office and when I got home. That remained our special time together.“
Remember also that your baby can still benefit from all the health-promoting and protective properties of breast milk, even when you go back to work. Your breastmilk has many ingredients that fight infections and help your baby recover faster if he or she gets sick. Studies even show that breastfeeding mothers take less leave than mothers who do not breastfeed because their babies are less likely to get sick. 1
When should I go back to work?
Some moms don’t have much choice about when they return to work. This may depend on the employer, maternity and parental leave laws in the country, or financial need. If you’re lucky enough to have a choice, weigh the benefits (such as income, career development, mental stimulation or social contact) against the drawbacks (not being with your baby, childcare costs or complicated logistics) before deciding, and talk to friends and colleagues about their experiences.
Remember that breastfeeding and pumping at work, in addition to the daily grind of having a baby or toddler, can be both physically and emotionally exhausting. For some mothers, however, pumping is also a welcome respite from a stressful day at work.
„It was hard to go back to work and focus on my job for eight hours, so I really enjoyed the breaks to pump," she says, Monika, a mother of three from Switzerland, explains. „I had time to myself, could sit down, close my eyes and relax.“
What about childcare?
Choose a childcare provider or facility that is happy to give your pumped breast milk to your baby and/or doesn’t mind you breastfeeding when you drop off and pick up your baby. Discuss this in advance and make your needs clear.
Ask how they store your breast milk, and make sure to provide enough disinfected bottles and nipples. Also explain to them how your baby prefers to drink breast milk- Warm or cold, lying in arms or alone under supervision (if older than six months)-, To make the transition easier for your baby.
If you’re lucky enough to have your family members take over childcare, leave them plenty of breast milk and specific instructions. In the case of Gimena, a mother of two from Argentina, it took her daughter a little longer to adjust to the new way of feeding: "When my daughter was nine months old, I went back to work for four hours a day.", she tells. „I got up early to pump, and then left a bottle of expressed breast milk for my husband to use. She didn’t take the bottle at first, but we kept offering it to her and it worked out in the end.“
What should I ask my employer?
Contact your employer as soon as you know that and when you want to return to work, even if the exact date is months in the future. You should talk about the number of hours you should work and how he can support you to continue breastfeeding. Maybe you want to work part-time, do "job-sharing Considering or preferring to work longer per day, but fewer days in total.
„I had six months of parental leave and after that it felt okay to go back to work. I now work part-time, 60% of the week, and it’s perfect for me", says Andrea, a mother of two from Switzerland.
If you work for a large company, contact HR to find out about the company’s policy on breastfeeding. If no employee has expressed breast milk before you, lead the way and be the first.
If you want to pump milk at work, let your employer know ahead of time. In many countries, employers are required by law to provide a separate room where mothers can pump, allow regular breaks to pump, and also provide a place to safely store breast milk. Find out if your country has policies for breastfeeding mothers in the workplace and find out about them.
„My tip is to have a plan before returning to work", says Shalena, a mother of two from Canada. „Make your needs clear- How often you’ll need to pump, for how long, and where. Also, it’s important to make it clear that your needs change, depending on how old your baby gets. Know your rights and responsibilities, and confidently implement your plans.“
An alternative to pumping at work is to have a childcare center near your workplace so you can nurse your baby during your breaks for your usual meals.
How best to prepare for a return to work?
If you’re breastfeeding, try pumping milk a few weeks beforehand and giving your baby breast milk from a bottle or cup so you both get used to the new way of feeding.
You also need to find the best pumping method for you. This can be an electric breast pump, a manual pump or even expressing milk by hand. Efficiency, cost, portability and noise level of the pump are all factors that can influence your choice.
Encourage your family and friends to feed your baby pumped breast milk so he gets used to being fed by others. Your baby may accept your milk more easily from someone else if you’re not in the room.
„We introduced a bottle of expressed breast milk quite early, months before I went back to work. So I was sure it wouldn’t be a problem once I returned to work", explains Lily, a mother of two from the UK. „We tried several bottles and nipples before finding a combination that my son accepted.“
Once you’ve carefully planned your return, it’s time to think about the logistics of pumping at work- read our articles on pumping at work, storing and transporting your breast milk safely, and pumping on the go.
1 Murtagh L, Moulton AD. Working mothers, breastfeeding, and the law. Am J Public Health. 2011;101(2):217-223.