By Ellen Rubin, IBCLC
When you first bring your new baby home, the days (and nights!) seem very long. Soon however, you will find yourself falling into a more predictable and comfortable breastfeeding pattern. For many mothers, they will be returning to work within a few months after baby is born.
Questions about when to start pumping and introducing a bottle are normal. A great place to begin is by listening to our Working and Breastfeeding podcast. In the meantime, here are a few steps to set your mind at ease as you consider preparing for your return to work.
Generally, we recommend beginning to pump and offer bottles about four to six weeks after breastfeeding is well established and at least three weeks before you return to work. If you are returning to work at six weeks, you may want to start pumping at about three weeks. If you are returning at eight weeks or beyond, consider beginning to establish a pumping routine around one month. Should you plan to return to work when your baby is older than six months, consider if baby will be taking a cup and the introduction of solid foods. If you have not already discussed pumping at work with your employer, it is never too early to do so. Here is some information about pumping rights in the workplace.
Begin by selecting a regular time to pump once a day. Many mothers choose right after the first morning feed because they haven’t yet started a busy day and milk tends to be plentiful in the morning. Initially, you may not obtain a significant amount when pumping. Don’t worry. After a few days, your pumping yield will become more predictable. See our website for some pumping pointers here and here.
Once you have milk stored, begin by offering your baby a practice bottle. This does not need to be a full feeding, or done every day. Choose a time when both you and baby are calm and alert, so you are prepared to follow each other’s cues and learn how to work together. As tempting as it may be, offering the first few bottles in the middle of the night often creates more stress than relief. To begin, try offering a half-ounce after breastfeeding. You can also offer a small amount prior to breastfeeding, and finish at the breast. Whenever baby is offered a full bottle in place of a feed, mom should pump. This helps maintain supply and avoid uncomfortably full breasts. You can also see our advice on helping baby learn to accept a bottle.
As you become more experienced with pumping and bottle feeding, you can start to think about how much milk you will need to store for your return to work. At the minimum, you need enough milk for your first work day, as you will then pump at work for the following day. If pumping once a day does not seem sufficient, you may find adding more pumping sessions helps you to have more stored milk. Try not to have a very large quantity of stored milk. This can lead to problems with oversupply in mom, dependence on the pump and it takes up valuable freezer space! Freeze milk in 2-3 oz. quantities. Smaller amounts defrost more quickly and there’s less chance of wasting unused breastmilk once its been thawed. A few one ounce bags of frozen milk allows you to have a “back up” and enables you to adjust the amount offered. Breastmilk handling and storage guidelines are available here and here.
Every mother’s return to work will be different. Speaking with co-workers who have already navigated the pumping scene at your office can be very helpful. Connecting with other working and breastfeeding moms in the community is invaluable. Check out the Working Moms’ Coffee, or your local La Leche League group.