Pumping Is Parenting: Returning To Work As A Breastfeeding Mom

Like many new mothers, I fumbled awkwardly with my pump in the early days. I stared at it, this hybrid-rubix-cube-meets-medieval torture-device and contemplated how exactly this strange collection of plastic was going to help me feed my baby. Exhausted and with hormones raging like, well, a first-time mother returning to work, I stood crying in my kitchen as I jammed pieces together, glancing through misty eyes at the instructions. How will I be able do this? Every day? What if she wouldn’t take a bottle? Or my supply dropped? Or my pump broke mid-day? I wanted to keep breastfeeding but I also needed to start working again. I felt like I was being punished for having a vagina. And boobs.

My return to the workforce was a many-splendored, emotional seesaw ride. The 15-minute walk to work actually felt like a vacation! Then again, seeing mums and their brand new babies in the store could instantly send my let down pouring through my padded pumping bra. At the end of the day, I would basically sprint home proudly, waving my bags of mama milk, and dying to shove my boob in my gals face.

What started out as a super awkward and constant referencing of instructions regarding parts, safe sanitizing and breastmilk storage, eventually turned into a (literally) natural flow of expressing and providing milk for my girl. It was satisfying to see that freezer stash grow and to feel like we were still connected, even when apart. Pumping became a check in with myself and my daughter, and I developed a rhythm that allowed me to feel productive at my jobs of both employee and mother.

There were challenges and triumphs akin to those I encountered as a stay at home mom. It didn’t take long to realize that even though I wasn’t changing diapers or singing Baby Beluga (except on occasion by request from my co-workers) I was still parenting while at work. Because providing for your family is part of parenting. And most definitely - pumping is parenting.

Some Facts

In a country where women routinely return to their jobs as early as 6 weeks and where according to the US Census in 2010, 55% of mothers who had recently given birth were still active in the workforce, we need to talk about how to support women balancing motherhood and employment. So let’s start at the beginning. You want to keep breastfeeding but you also want/need to get back to your job. What are your options?

According to the National Women’s Health Resource Center, 30% of new moms give up breastfeeding less than seven weeks after returning to work. If this is out of an empowered choice… that’s totally cool. But, if this is due to a lack of support, resources or comes from a place of feeling trapped… totally not cool. Did you know that in New York State if your place of work has more than 50 employees, they are required by law to give you time and space to pump? Even if you work for a small business, they are still required to make a reasonable effort to provide you with these things, or otherwise need to prove why they cannot. Did you know that you’re also eligible for a free breast pump through your insurance? Check out HealthCare.gov for the official low down.

So when and where to pump? I would highly recommend attending a La Leche League (LLL) meeting or meeting with an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC) to establish a pumping schedule that works for you, your job and your milk supply before returning to work. We host a breast feeding support group three Fridays a month with IBCLC Patricia McGuire. Some mothers I interviewed mentioned their place of work having a lactation room that required them to book time slots. Can you find this out prior to returning to work so you can make a pumping plan? The general rule is to pump when your baby would usually feed, and pump for a little longer than babe would feed (as pumps are less effective than a cute baby at getting mama’s hormones and milk flowing).

Is it possible to receive texts from your caregiver when baby is given a bottle? Does it help you to pump after the morning feeding so that you arrive at work “empty” breasted and able to work for a good stretch? (FYI: your boobies are NEVER truly empty!) Would it help you to arrive early to a quiet office and pump it up (and out) before you start your work day? If your job is mobile perhaps you would benefit from bringing extra pump parts and batteries and sleuthing out lactation rooms around the city.

One local mom told me her pumping-on-the-go secret was to use hotel bathrooms! Apparently in NYC, hotels are required by law to let you use their bathrooms and many of them have outlets and comfortable seating. While bathrooms are not the ideal place for pumping, if you’re about to leak through your brand new blouse 30 minutes before your big meeting, it might feel like a good option.

Pro Tip: If you routinely have multiple meetings per day, let your co-workers, boss or secretary know that you need ample time in between meetings to pump. In the case where this can not be accommodated, let them know that at a certain time you’ll be stepping out for 20 minutes.

A Typical Day

What might the day of a breastfeeding working mom look like? For a woman between six weeks and six months postpartum (or even 12 month postpartum if thats what you and baby need), pumping for 20 minutes, three times per day would be totally normal. Perhaps you breastfeed babe at 7 am, then pump at 10 am, 1 pm and 4 pm. Your employer is not required by law to pay you for pumping breaks (unless you choose to pump on paid breaks). But they are required to pay you if there is any expectation that you continue to work (answer emails, review research, be on the phone, etc.) while you are pumping, because of the FLSA’s general requirement that the employee must be completely relieved from duty or else the time must be compensated as work time applies. Source: http://www.dol.gov/whd/regs/compliance/whdfs73.htm

What kind of space are they required to give you? The Affordable Care Act of 2010 states that employers (with 50 employees or more) must provide reasonable break times (which implies frequency and duration) for the sole purpose of expressing milk for mothers of children under 12 months. They must also provide a private space that is not a bathroom for the mother to pump in. The space may be reserved exclusively for the sole purpose of expressing milk OR be available at any time the mother requires it without the intrusion of co-workers. Ideally there would be a “Mother’s Room” that would have both pumping facilities (outlets, sinks, privacy screens, comfortable seating and a fridge) or maybe you have your own private office to pump in. Knowing your rights gives you the power to exercise them. We must be aware of what we’re legally allowed so we can confidently ask for what we need. Knowing how the law supports our breastfeeding goals is one of the ways to ensure we can continue to give these babes that precious liquid gold while keeping our careers on track.

Tonia, a local first time mom (and pumping champion of the universe - still going strong at 18 months!) told me that when she started back to work there was no lactation room. Three times per day she would take over the HR office and pump - sounds awkward right? Not really! She felt super supported, and said that everyone in the office was really sweet about it. 15 months later, the office has been renovated and due to Tonia’s tenacity and the company’s support, they now have a dedicated mothers room (now shared by two other pumping moms!). #momwin

Tonia had so many great insights. Her music and film distribution company, The Orchard, was amazing at responding to her feedback and requests. But they had never had a mom ask about pumping before. There are so many potential stressors when a new mom leaves her baby for the first time; having some veiled mystery about the policies, attitudes and resources surrounding workplace pumping shouldn’t be one of them, remarked Tonia. Prior to going on maternity leave, conversations with HR should also include discussions about pumping options and support when you return to work. Not everyone will choose to breastfeed and pump, but for those that are thinking about it, a quick discussion before the fact could go a long way in relieving tensions that relate to the when, how and where this pumping business is all going to go down.


Now what is this pump I speak of? Breast pumps come in FOUR major forms.

1) Your hand.

I’m serious. Hand expression is a really useful tool and one best mastered as soon as you are ready and willing. Moms experiencing engorgement (Yay! You are making a ton of milk!) often find it helpful to hand express a little before trying to latch babe or start pumping. Here is a great video on what hand expression is all about: WARNING - YOU WILL SEE TA-TA’s.

2) Manual Pump.

  Never instead of, always as well as. If you are a full time working mama (or even part time, or even stay at home and want to pump sometimes or build a stash) you need yourself an electric pump. It’s 2014 and ya don’t need to be giving yourself carpal tunnel. But a manual pump is a must have because it is easy, portable and can fit in a purse and easily relieve you in situations where your master pump is on the fritz, has dead batteries, or when you just need a bit of relief from engorgement during a work lunch or out on the town (Ha! That crazy blog lady thinks I have time to go out on the TOWN!?). We sell the Hygeia EnHande.

3) Electric Pump

These come in the single or double variety. Depending on your budget, health insurance coverage or other preferences, you may prefer to opt for single. But double gets the job done in half the time. So if you are pumping 3X per day for 20 mins, a double will be your BFF (breast friend forever). Most pumps are open-system and are designed for 1 user. It is not recommended to share open-system pumps. Or re-sell them. Or buy them used. But if you choose to go down that road, do yourself a favor and buy new tubing, membranes, flanges and bottles. Better yet, consider a pump that has a closed-system, which means that a filter between the pump and the tubing will prevent any milk particles from entering or contaminating the inside of the pump, and can therefore be used for multiple users.

4) Hospital Grade Pump

This is a marketing term not recognized by the FDA. It does not necessarily imply better or safer. Do your research. Check instead for mention of whether it is “single” or “multi” user. If you are able to rent a pump, it is likely (but make sure to check!) a “multi” user pump. You are essentially just renting the motor and are required to buy a kit of personal pump parts that are sanitary and used only by you.

The terminology “hospital grade” however can be important for insurance coding. You can request your OBGYN, midwife or other medical professional to write a script, saying that you need a “hospital grade double electric pump”.

So what happens if your pump fails? Isn’t suctioning well? Or the tubing looks all yucky? Most breast pumps have a multitude of replaceable parts. So rather than assuming all is lost, you can trouble shoot through the many issues that befall breast pump malfunctions.


One of the most common reasons for suction to slow is due to the membranes or duckbill valves wearing out. These are easy to replace and cost next to nothing. Have you recently switched from plugging in at an outlet to using an external battery pack? Many moms notice a reduction in the suction when they make this switch. Remember, part of the environment your job must provide is access to an outlet! If outlets are inconvenient for you at home or while out and about, Hygeia's Enjoye LBI pump has a snazzy, internal Lithium Battery that supports up to 8 hours of pumping time.

Let’s talk FLANGES (sexy sexy flanges!)

So these are the round coney tubes that you allow your mammaries to be sucked up into oblivion. Usually your pump comes with the standard size (24 or 27 mm in diameter). But just like the high waist skinny jeans at Urban Outfitters, many women will find they need large (or XL). Note: This does NOT have to do with the size of your breasts alone! The elasticity of your skin and also the shape of your breasts and nipples affect which flange size you will need. If your nipple is touching the side of the flange then it is too small. This can impact your comfort and your flow. Just like breastfeeding, the pump needs to put pressure on the lower sinuses of the areola in order to effectively let down your milk. The unfortunate part is that there is no perfect way to measure for what size flange you will need without the trial and error of pumping.

But WAIT! Before you go throwing out those skinny mini flanges… Here is some great info about flanges from a company we love called Pumpin Pal. They share the insight that depending on where you are in lactation, how engorged (or not) your breasts are that day, different sizes may suit your needs at different times. They advocate for having all sizes available from day one. Most women have one breast that is larger than their other, so you can imagine how this variance is only exacerbated when boobs are full of milk! 


Your milk should not enter the tubing. Neither should water. If you see condensation in your tubes, it is usually a result of excess water left in the pump parts after cleaning. To avoid this, Try to really dry your pump parts after cleaning. It's worth it to have multiple sets of valves, membranes etc for work just in case thorough drying is tricky. Q-Tips are also good to have on hand for those hard to dry spots.

Some women I talked to, loved commercial pump wipes for easy travel cleaning. If you find yourself with frosty looking tubes (YUM), simply make like a warrior princess and whip them around your head like a lasso in a circular motion (AWAY FROM COWORKERS EYEBALLS) until the moisture is pulled out. You will feel like a badass, and also your tubes won't be damp anymore. Replacing your tubing is also a good idea once and awhile, especially if you feel it might help your pump work better.

Need More Milk?

Pumping can be awkward. CAN be? Okay, pumping is awkward. But there ARE ways to make it more enjoyable and to get those milkies flowin’.

Take LOTS of pics of your baby. Make sure to keep some adorably pathetic teeny newborn ones on there, and get some audio/video when they're crying. Take one each morning, or have your caregiver send you ones throughout the day so you have new moments to get lost in. Looking at pictures and videos of your baby can help bring you back to why you're doing this to yourself at 2 p.m. on a Tuesday.


Play a mindless game, catch up on social media, watch a TV show. This is opposite of the above advice. Some people need their distractions. Watching the clock (or the ounces) can be stressful for some moms, especially those fighting supply issues. If you need to pump for 20-30 minutes, letting yourself completely zone out can help take your focus off the quantitative tracking of milk, and may encourage relaxation and an easier let down.

Herbs and Supplements

Here at Caribou Baby, we are not herbalists, Lactation Consultants or doctors. We always recommend talking to a qualified professional about the uses of herbs for milk supply if you think they might be helpful to you. Fenugreek has been shown to encourage milk production, as have oats! There are awesome recipes all over the internet for making your own lactation treats.

These recipes usually also include brewers yeast which is also a glactagogue. We sell Milkmakers Lactation Cookies in store.

And just as there are herbs that can help boost supply, there are also those that can hinder it. Many people enjoy peppermint tea. Delicious as it is, mint is a herb best enjoyed when you are looking to produce LESS milk, not more. Of course, some women notice no changes in supply when they have one diet over another, or take a course of herbs over another. But just to be on the safe side, if you are doing everything in your power to boost your supply - best to avoid these herbs.

By far and away, the must have essential of pumping working moms are quality, comfortable pumping bras. Seriously. We carry Simple Wishes Bustiers and there are tons out there on the market. Find the one that feels the best under your work attire but also keeps the flanges comfortably in place during pumping sessions. We also recently came across these, which are designed to slip easily into your own bra and under your shirt. Hooray for innovation!

In speaking to moms and hearing about their journeys balancing careers and providing breastmilk to their kiddos, I often found myself moved to tears. Stories of moms pumping in construction sites (woohoo Penny!) or on flights back from China sandwiched between two sleeping passengers (you are amazing, Pam!) or Lauren, a law student, who on her first day away from her babe realized she forgot milk storage bags and had to sprint to a pharmacy in order to make it back in time for class. These are real women, in our community, doing amazing things. Their stories are so beautiful - the best ones are the messiest and the ones that come from their hardest days. I am so proud of every single one of them, for every single time they sat down, strapped in and milked themselves. You ladies rock my world. Your efforts are seen, they are recognized, they are appreciated and they are celebrated here in this moment.

Happy Pumping!


Laura Interlandi
Laura Interlandi


Laura Interlandi is co-founder of BirdSong Brooklyn and feels very blessed to be serving women and families in New York. She realized, through her own journey, the difference support can make in a mothers/family's ability to handle everything from sleeplessness, to breastfeeding challenges, emotional and hormonal tumult, staying connected, feeling empowered, bonding with baby and generally being able to keep perspective and enjoy the ride.


David McCarthy
David McCarthy

October 07, 2014

Hey great article! Informative and funny. I have learned way more than I ever imagined!

Mei Lai Hippisley Coxe
Mei Lai Hippisley Coxe

October 07, 2014

Great article Laura; thanks so much!


October 05, 2014

Thank you! I feel more inspired to continue to pump/work.
As a mom I feel so special and privileged that I am able to breastfeed my baby. Reading great articles like this encourages me to continue despite the difficulties encountered on a busy day at work. I will save this piece and read it whenever I’m having a challenging day!
To all moms out there ‘Happy Pumping’ Indeed!!!


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