If you were like me, your time spent on your maternity leave somehow felt like both a blink of an eye and yet an eternity at the same time. The days were probably filled with intense emotion, on both ends of the spectrum. I felt like I couldn’t begin to imagine what my life was like before N joined our family. Such constant love, devotion and determination fills the days of your maternity leave and the thought of going back to work after maternity leave, whether full or part-time, is extremely emotional. This is a huge transition in your life likely filled with many questions. Where to begin?!
Before Baby Arrives
Believe it or not, there are actions you can take as an expecting mother that will help your transition back to work before baby even arrives. If you’re already past this point, don’t worry! It’s never too late to start getting organized and prepared for the transition. The benefit to starting to think about these things early is that your maternity leave will be filled with less anxiety and worry. You will have an action plan in place to allow your leave to be focused entirely on nourishing and adjusting to life with your new baby.
A great place to start is understanding what you are entitled to by law as a nursing mama. There are protections in place to promote and support you in your breastfeeding endeavors. Here I will talk about what you are entitled to in the US. If you are a reader from a different country, do your research now to make sure that you are well taken care of. Unfortunately, not all work places know or are the most helpful about these things so it is imperative that you be your number one advocate! I have heard too many stories about being shamed for taking time to pump at work, not being provided adequate space or privacy and more. What you are doing for your baby shows such commitment, never let these people or their power over you make you feel guilty or ‘inconvenient’. You are protected! If you are part of a union or have access to an HR representative definitely get in touch and get them on your team. It is their job to make sure your rights are upheld.
United States Breastfeeding Laws:
- INSURANCE MUST COVER: breastfeeding support, counseling, and equipment for the duration of breastfeeding. This means lactation consultants and breast pumps.
- EMPLOYERS MUST PROVIDE: break time for nursing mothers, along with private space that is not a bathroom for all hourly employees. To keep up your supply, you need to nurse as often as your baby usually eats. Make sure to budget time in for setting up and cleaning up.
You can find more detailed information about these laws in requirements in the resource section at the end of this article.
Now let’s talk about some things you can do now to ensure that these rights are upheld. For those expecting, on your hospital tour check to ensure they have lactation consultants on staff and see if the staff there can help you acquire a pump. Your insurance may require you to notify them that you are pregnant and will send your pump directly to your home. So, a phone call to them is a good idea at some point in your pregnancy. Some insurance companies even have baby ‘welcome’ packages which may entitle you to coupons for safe car seats, new baby learning materials and more.
On that note, when you call your health insurance company ask about the details of your coverage in terms of breastfeeding support as well. Determine if you need a doctor’s recommendation to get breastfeeding counseling. While it is required for this service to be covered, some insurance companies need you to have an official “referral”. If you do not have health insurance please reach out to local social support services that can help get you enrolled. There are many social services in place particularly for pregnant women. Do not wait to get help!
Another thing that you should do, ideally before you go on Maternity leave, is to start talking to your employer about your transition back to work, plans to pump, and what that means you are entitled too. Some women find it helpful to do a slow transition with half days or part-time work by using their FMLA in creative ways. Talk about these possibilities and decide what makes the most sense for you and your family based on your financial situation, mental health, and expectations. Also be prepared to revisit this plan because it is impossible to know just how you will feel or be affected by life with a new baby. Hopefully you will be greeted with support, acceptance and understanding, but prepare yourself to advocate in case you are not and don’t be afraid to pull out the laws if need be.
The last recommendation I have is to do your research and find out what breastfeeding support and general postpartum and new mom support groups are available to you. There are likely a variety of free support groups right in your community. Look online, but also check in with hospitals, pediatrician offices, local libraries, and the Le Leche League website to find a local chapter. By knowing about these types of groups ahead of time you will immediately know where to go if you are having difficulties, and even if breastfeeding is going smoothly you will benefit immensely from the social interaction and empathy that can exist only between new mothers going through the same thing at the same time.
For more support with this and other ways to prepare for breastfeeding prior to baby, check out our free breastfeeding e-mail course which is full of great information and action items including ones to help you prepare for your return to work. This course is designed for both expecting and new mothers because we believe it is never too early to start setting up your support system and learning as much as you can.
While on Maternity Leave
For at least the first 8 weeks, you should just soak up all of the newborn snuggles, put your focus and energy on adjusting to life with baby and building up a supply that matches your baby’s needs. This takes effort and you will probably feel like you are nursing all the time, around the clock, because you are! The reason why I put this explicitly in the timeline of preparing to go back to work is because if your goal is to return to work and continue pumping for baby, it is very important that you spend your maternity leave focusing on breastfeeding and supply.
Related Article: The Critical Guide to Starting your Breastfeeding Relationship
Additionally, if you were like me, you may not have known just how much goes into breastfeeding until you are actually thrown into it. To make sure you can succeed during your maternity leave and establish a really solid foundation with nursing before returning to work, I highly recommend trying our free 5-day breastfeeding course. We e-mail the lesson right to you each day and it is the perfect quick read for during a late-night nursing session or during cluster feeds. It aims to educate you, promote confidence, and help you reflect and process your breastfeeding experience. It will really help your breastfeeding journey flourish.
For more information about how supply works and to take steps to combat low supply, read all about milk production. You should also make sure to avoid bottles completely, which I’ll talk about more below, because it will impact your ability to build an appropriate supply that is going to ultimately allow you to have a successful nursing relationship and the ability to pump enough when you are away from baby to ensure they are getting all or mostly breastmilk while you are working.
During the Last 2-4 Weeks of your Maternity Leave
Depending on your situation and if you haven’t started already, this is the time frame when you should start thinking about storing expressed milk and introducing baby to a bottle. Ideally, you don’t want to use a bottle before now because of the negative effects it can have on supply and the possibility of creating nipple confusion. If you are nursing baby on-demand, you don’t need to pump before now, your supply will grow to meet baby’s needs. By beginning to pump and regularly adding one bottle per day to baby’s routine, you will have the peace of mind that baby will take a bottle and you will be able to have a supply of expressed milk ready to be used for your return.
If you are returning to work, aim to be a few days ahead of baby in terms of having a supply. If you are pumping one session per day, in addition to giving a small bottle of expressed milk to help baby adjust to the bottle, then it will take you around 2-4 weeks to build up a 2-3 day supply for baby. In my breastfeeding support group, I heard so many moms talking about the supplies that they had in their freezers and often the facilitator would discourage this. Breastmilk “hoarding” so to speak is very common, but is a cycle that most professionals discourage. Many women think they need to have a freezer full of milk before going back to work but it really is best to only be a few days ahead because your milk changes so much in those first 3-4 months, that baby might not like the expressed milk from earlier. It changes in composition, nutritional content and even taste! Additionally, your breastmilk changes on a daily basis to meet the current needs of your baby so your breastmilk is “more effective” if you are only a few days ahead. This is not to say that in an emergency situation or if baby is hungry enough that they won’t take older, less ideal milk. But on the whole, having recently expressed milk is key. Remember that on your first day back to work after maternity leave you will be pumping for each “missed” feeding your baby has, and that will then in turn be their milk for the next day.
Related article: Pumping and Storing
If you are wondering exactly when to introduce pumping, I recommend two to four weeks before returning to work. You can start adding in a pumping session in the morning at the same time every day after baby nurses in the morning. Your body will learn to always produce that extra milk at the same time (it will follow supply and demand, and in this case the pump is the demand). The main reason to wait that long before pumping, if at all possible, is that in can take that long for your supply to truly regulate to baby’s needs. By adding in pumping you can actually lower your overall supply because the pump is not as effective, or you can wind up with an over-supply which can be equally as frustrating because it means you are more prone to clogged ducts and infection. This learn more about this, read my article with tips to clear a clogged duct fast.
Remember, this two to four week window is an important time to start getting baby used to a bottle. If you have exclusively breastfed up until this point, which is recommended as long as baby is gaining and having adequate wet diapers, then you should be forewarned that your baby may not take to the bottle immediately. This is why I have an entire post for you to read that is dedicated to getting your breastfed baby to take a bottle.
In the Week before Going Back to Work After Maternity Leave
Hopefully by now you have some childcare plans in place that you feel comfortable and confident about. It is a good idea to have your child attend their first day of childcare before you actually go back to work. Seriously, do the trial run! No matter how you are feeling about this transition, this day is going to have you filled to the brim with all kinds of emotions. You don’t want your first day back at work to be you crying at your desk. Instead, drop your baby off for a half or full day at daycare, or have your babysitter or childcare provider come to your home. and plan a day to go to a café, get organized, and maybe visit with a friend or family without your baby. You might enjoy these things and benefit from a “mental health” day before your return to work, or you might find that you need to just go home and cry- and that is totally okay! The other benefit is that you will have a chance to reflect on and troubleshoot any obstacles that may be present in your new routine.
Another thing to think about is who is going to be your ally at work. Maybe you already have a work “bestie” who is going to be your support, encourage you to stick with pumping, and have your back when a meeting runs long in that space that is reserved for you by law, but if you don’t then seriously think about who this person could be. Is there another woman who you know pumped at work? Or even another mother in general? I can almost guarantee that she will be happy to be your ‘person’.
As you get ready for the return to work and switch to pumping a lot more often during the day, make sure that you have a pumping supply bag and set up ready to go. You’ll need storage bottles and bags, if you don’t have access to a refrigerator then you will need a cooler, using a pumping bra makes pumping easier and hands free. Having an extra set of pump parts can be helpful too so that one set can live at work. You’ll want to have some adorable photos and videos of your baby on your phone ready to go, and even a recording of their cry can be particularly helpful in promoting a letdown for the pump. Be sure to pack extra snacks, a full water bottle, and anything else you might need to make pumping at work the most comfortable it can be.
You’ve Got This
With this guide, you now have the steps in place of what you can do throughout your pregnancy and your maternity leave to make your transition back to work smoother as a breastfeeding mother.
Whether you are making the transition next week, or are pregnant and learning everything you can, we have a variety of other articles that will support you in our breastfeeding and expecting sections.
You can read my article about pumping and storing if you are looking for more detailed information on that topic. I also wrote an article if you are having trouble getting your breastfed baby to take a bottle.
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Alli Wittbold is a wife, mama, blogger, and online teacher. She feels passionate about connecting expectant mothers with childbirth class educators, and supporting them to achieve the birth they desire. After having her first baby delivered by a Certified Nurse Midwife, Alli is an advocate for midwifery prenatal care. She has learned so much about labor and delivery by attending and reviewing dozens of birth classes to help mothers learn and explore options. Alli co-authored the Week-by-Week Bump Smart Course, the Nesting Planner and the Breastfeeding Handbook, resources she is proud to share with as many expectant and new mothers as possible. Read more about Alli.