How to Cope with Breastfeeding when Returning to Work

Nurse with confidence after going back to work with our breastfeeding expert’s advice.

By Teresa Pitman
How to Cope with Breastfeeding when Returning to Work

Photo: iStockphoto / Halfpoint

Most Canadian mothers are eligible for up to 18 months with our babies while our jobs are held for us. For some, though, finances or personal choices dictate an earlier return to work—and you may wonder if it is possible to continue breastfeeding after returning to work.

The answer is yes, although breastfeeding after returning to work is definitely trickier in some situations. Read on for tips on how to make it work for you and your baby.

Assess your breastfeeding status

If your baby is just a few weeks old and you must return to work, you may feel breastfeeding is not yet well established. This is the most challenging age to continue breastfeeding after returning to work. You’ll probably need to pump at least twice while you’re at work, and possibly three or four times during the day to keep up your milk supply. If breastfeeding is well established, but your baby hasn’t yet started on solids, you will also need to pump to provide milk for your baby while you are separated.

mother breastfeeding baby kate_sept2004 / Getty Images

Don’t get ready to go back to work too early

Your focus should be on getting breastfeeding well established, so you have a solid milk supply and a baby who nurses effectively. There’s no need to, for example, introduce a bottle at two weeks because you are planning to return to work at six months. A couple weeks before your return to the job is usually plenty of time to begin helping your baby to get ready. If your older baby has always nursed to sleep, naptimes may be your biggest worry. You may want to talk to your daycare provider about approaches used to help babies nap (such as patting their back or rocking them) so that you can add these to your baby’s going-to-sleep routine.

mother pumping breast milk at desk skaman306 / Getty Images


Seek out supportive child care and discuss your plans to breastfeed there

Daycare situations vary greatly, and some know more about breastfeeding than others. Ask about how they would store your milk if you are planning on bringing some in each day. Ideally you will be able to spend some time in the centre nursing your baby at the beginning and end of each day. Not only does that help your child feel comfortable in the daycare environment, but it also exposes you to any germs that might be present so you can create antibodies against them and have those antibodies present in your milk. You may also want to ask the daycare provider to time the daily feeds so your baby will be hungry and ready to nurse when you arrive at the end of the day.

toddler sitting on the floor drinking bottle drinking milk using feeding bottle at kindergarten AaronAmat / Getty Images

Pump or hand-express as needed

Heather Tsarfati’s daughter Talia was 11 months old when she returned to work part-time, working five hours a day. “For the first little while, I needed to hand-express some milk during the day or I’d be too full. My breasts soon adjusted, though, and by the time she was 18 months old I was able to go to an all-day conference for work and didn’t even feel uncomfortable.” If you are returning to work with an exclusively breastfed baby (not yet eating solid foods), pumping during the day can be essential. Look for a high-quality pump that allows you to pump both breasts at the same time (saving precious minutes each time you pump). Talk to your employer about how this can fit into your schedule and where milk can be stored. If your boss is uneasy, telling him or her that research studies show breastfeeding mothers take less time off work because their babies tend to be healthier could help allay concerns.

Woman Holding Breast Pump Bottle Emilija Manevska / Getty Images

Know the guidelines for storing your milk

If you are pumping milk for your caregiver to feed your baby, your first choice, if possible, should be to store your milk in a refrigerator, and have it fed to the baby within eight days. Milk that’s been frozen loses some of the protective enzymes and antibodies present in fresh milk. However, it still has more antibodies and more appropriate nutrition for a baby than infant formula, so building a small freezer stash can be helpful in case you aren’t able to pump much on some days, and you can store milk in a freezer for between six and 12 months. Human milk can also safely be kept at room temperature (between 19 and 26 degrees Celsius) for six to eight hours.

Breast milk in bottles on refrigerator shelf Jamie Grill / Getty Images


Consider avoiding bottles altogether

With a young baby, most daycare providers will want to use bottles for feedings. But if your baby is older than six months, you have other options. Your milk could be offered to her in a sippy cup, added to solid foods such as cereal, soups, or mashed vegetables. It can also be frozen into popsicles. Tsarfati found Talia wasn’t interested in mommy’s milk offered in a sippy cup, but she’d take water from a cup, and she continued to breastfeed during the evening and at night.

baby girl drinking water from sippy cup M-image / Getty Images

Plan for increased night-time nursing

Many babies will start breastfeeding more often during the night than before you returned to work, especially during the first few weeks. There’s a side benefit to this: the levels of prolactin (the hormone that encourages milk production) are higher during night feedings, so this will help maintain your milk supply. But it can be tiring, so plan to maximize your sleep.

Mom breastfeeding infant Tatyana Tomsickova Photography / Getty Images

Start back on a Wednesday or Thursday if you can

The first few days are likely to be the toughest, as you figure out pumping, milk storage and managing daycare. Having a shorter week to start means you’ll soon have the weekend to evaluate how things are going and make adjustments as needed. For Tsarfati, the biggest challenge was realizing how much longer it took to get ready in the morning than in the days when it was just her and her husband.

baby sitting on shoulder while mother sits at desktop pixdeluxe / Getty Images


Breastfeed “on demand” on weekends

If you’ve noticed your milk production flagging during the week at work this is your chance to rebuild it and enjoy the convenience of a more natural nursing relationship. If you are pumping, the milk you stored on Friday will keep just fine in the fridge for baby to have on Monday.

Young mother breastfeeding her baby boy in public place NoSystem images / Getty Images

Remember breastfeeding is so much more than a source of nourishment

They nurse to reconnect with you after a long day apart, to feel comforted and in contact with you. Even if you find you need to give formula (or, with an older baby, cow’s milk or other liquids) during the day, continued breastfeeding during the times you and your baby are together may still be very important to your child.

You may find it is important to you as well. It bridges the gap between work and motherhood in a unique way, and it’s something you can give your baby no caregiver can.

This article was originally published in September 2011.

mother kissing newborn FatCamera / Getty Images
This article was originally published on Aug 24, 2022

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