Breastfeeding and Pumping Tips for Going Back to Work

RachelMS, RD, LDN, CSSD, CBS

Read time: 6 minutes

What to know about continuing to breastfeed while returning to work

  • Most employers must allow breastfeeding employees time and space to pump at work

  • Have a plan in place before you return to work

  • Prepare yourself, your baby, and your baby’s caregiver for your first day away

Over the last few months, you and your little one have likely gotten better at breastfeeding. But with your return to work or school coming up, it’s time to start thinking about how you’ll feed your baby while you’re away. Will you be pumping to provide breastmilk? Will you keep baby at a daycare close by where you can go and breastfeed in person?

With a little planning, both at home and by communicating with your employer, you can hopefully continue breastfeeding your baby long after your return to work.

Your breastfeeding and pumping rights at work

If you are covered by the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), and most hourly workers are, then you may have some protections for breastfeeding and pumping.1 Under the federal law ‘Break Time for Nursing Mothers’, employers are required to provide break time for breast pumping in a private space (not a bathroom), for up to a year after your baby’s birth.2

The good news is that many businesses may provide this break time whether the employee is covered by FLSA or not.1

It’s important to note that while employers must allow for as many nursing or pumping breaks as needed, the break time does not have to be paid.2

Speak with your employer before returning to work:

  • Figure out who to talk to. Your manager or supervisor may not know the federal and state laws and how they affect your particular job as thoroughly as someone in the HR department. Ask to set up a time to chat before your return to work.

  • Be prepared. They will likely ask how long you may need for each pumping session and how many sessions you’ll need total. Most women need to pump as often as they breastfeed (usually about 2 to 3 times during a typical workday) for about 15 minutes each time.

  • Talk with them about what you’ll need (regular times to pump throughout the day, clean running water, a private space).

  • Know the federal and state laws. Understanding the laws before chatting with your employer may help. You may even want to share them with your employer if needed.3,4,5

Here is more information for each state’s workplace lactation laws: https://pregnantatwork.org/workplace-lactation-laws/

Finding a designated space for pumping at work

When at the office, a good place to pump is any space that provides uninterrupted and comfortable privacy. If such an area does not exist, talk with your employer about establishing one before you return. A sign or other designated signal will help your colleagues understand the purpose of the space, and when the space is being used for pumping.4

The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law does not require this space to be used solely for nursing or pumping, it can be a shared space but must be private when needed for expressing milk.2

If your employer doesn’t know where they could fit one in, help out with some ideas, such as: private offices, clean storage closets, or even your car with window coverings.3

Learn about: How to Choose the Right Breast Pump

How much breastmilk will baby need each day?

You don’t need to stockpile gallons of breastmilk before you return to work, but you will need some milk on hand for that first day you’re away from your baby.

Here’s a helpful guide: Divide 25 (the average number of ounces a breastfed baby eats per day) by the total number of breastfeeding sessions in a typical 24-hour period.7 This will tell you how many ounces to leave in each bottle for each feeding.

If you normally breastfeed 8 times per 24 hours, the equation would be:

25 / 8 = 3 ounces in each bottle

Keep in mind that the amount of milk your baby drinks each day will vary. Between growth spurts and less hungry days, their appetite changes just like ours! But know your baby’s milk intake remains about the same from months 1 through 6; taking in an average of 3 ounces per bottle and about 20 to 30 ounces total per day.5,6

Getting ready for your first day away: how much breastmilk and pumping?

  • On the first day, bring frozen milk from your stockpile to daycare or the sitter.

  • Bring as many bottles/bags of breastmilk as the number of times you’d normally be breastfeeding during the period you’re away. For example, if you normally breastfeed 3 times between the hours of 9a and 5p (or whatever hours you will be working), send in 3 bottles of pumped breastmilk.

  • Bring a couple extra 1-ounce bags of breastmilk just in case your baby needs more. Keeping these separate from your prepared bottles will decrease the chance of having to throw away excess milk.

  • Pump at your regular nursing times while you’re away from your baby.

  • The milk you pump at work each day will be used for your baby’s bottles the following day, and you can freeze any extra.5,7,8

Continue to nurse often when you and baby are together

Many moms breastfeed their babies first thing in the morning, just before leaving the baby with the caregiver, as soon as they pick up the baby at the end of the workday, and 1-2 more times before bed (plus any night nursing if your baby is still waking to eat).

The important thing is to breastfeed your little one on demand – or whenever they ask. This will help you continue to stimulate the body to make as much milk as baby needs.

Read about: Breastfeeding: How to Support a Good Milk Supply

Reverse-cycling: Why is my baby feeding more at night now?

Some babies start to ‘reverse-cycle’. This means they are drinking less breastmilk when away from you but breastfeeding much more frequently once you two are reunited.5,7 While exhausting, this can help meet baby’s needs if they are refusing the bottle.

Watch your baby’s wet diapers to know they are getting enough on their new schedule. You should be seeing 6 or more wet diapers per 24 hours.9

Just as with most things in parenting, there will be challenges. If you have questions about pumping at work or preparing your return to work, reach out to our team of registered dietitians and lactation consultants for free! They’re here to help on our free to live chat from Monday – Friday 8am-6pm (ET), and Saturday – Sunday 8am-2pm (ET). Chat Now!

Tips on how to prepare for pumping at work

Establish a pumping routine before you return to work

Start pumping extra milk at least a few weeks before returning to work to create a small stockpile.10

You can do this by either:

  • Pumping for a few minutes after some or all of your nursing sessions

  • Adding in 1 to 2 separate pumping sessions between breastfeeding sessions12

Don’t worry if you’re not getting much milk at first. It can take some time for your body to respond to this increased demand for milk.

How much can you expect to pump each time?

Pumping after a breastfeeding session

Pumping after a feeding is much different than pumping when your breasts are full, you may not get as much since baby has already mostly emptied the breast. If you pump after feedings, you can combine the milks you pump into one breastmilk storage bag: adding until you get to about 3 ounces. Keep this milk refrigerated and cool each newly pumped milk before adding it to the larger milk collection.13

Pumping between breastfeeding sessions

Most moms get about half a feeding when they pump between sessions, or about 1.5 to 2 ounces.14

Pumping in place of a feeding

While pumping at work when you are away from baby, you can expect to pump the full feed: 3 to 4 ounces combined between both breasts.

Pumping tips when preparing to return to work

  • Always pump at the same time every day, or as close as you can get, so that your body expects the session and will begin producing milk for it.

  • Pump both breasts at the same time with a double-electric pump.

  • The hormones that help with milk production are higher in the mornings, so you may want to have at least one of your pumping sessions be in the morning to take advantage of this.11,15

Read more: Top Tips for Pumping Breastmilk

Allow baby to practice using a bottle

After you’ve been nursing for at least 3 to 4 weeks, have your baby practice taking breast milk from a bottle.7,10 It may help to have someone else offer the bottle.

You may need to experiment with different bottles and nipples to find a system you and your baby are most comfortable with.

Use paced bottle feeding to help make the feeding as close to breastfeeding as possible.16

Read more: Choosing the Best Bottles and Nipples for your Baby

Learn about how to help a baby who is refusing the bottle at the end of this article.

Best clothes for pumping

Don’t wear anything that will require you to fully undress. Think separates (not dresses) and blouses in dark colors or prints (to camouflage any spills). You can also try wearing a nursing top.

Pick out your clothes the night before so getting dressed is quick and easy during the morning rush. And remember to stash some extra breast pads and shirts in your workbag in case you’re leaking.

Using a hands-free bra can help tremendously as well.

Follow safe handling and storage practices for breastmilk

After pumping, label the breastmilk with the amount (ounces) and date. Immediately store the milk in a refrigerator or cooler with ice packs to keep it safe until you get home.

Clean all your pumping supplies after each session so you’re ready to go next time.

Read more: Safe Storage of Pumped Breastmilk

Tips for pumping at work

  • Relaxation is key. Listen to calming music and visualize milk flow.

  • To help with let-down: take a minute to look at some pictures or videos of your little one.

  • Massage during breastfeeding. Start at the outer part of your breast and work towards the areola.

  • Don’t look at how much you’re pumping; it can cause stress which then may lower your output. Cover the bottles if you need to.

  • If you have time, hand express a bit after each session.17,18,19,20

Read more: How and When to Hand Express Breastmilk

Choose a breastfeeding friendly caregiver

Make sure your caregiver is onboard with your carefully thought-out breastfeeding plan. Don’t be afraid to be very specific about your feeding preferences and techniques, such as using paced bottle feeding. Provide clear instructions for preparing and giving bottles of your pumped milk and encourage your baby’s caregiver to learn your baby’s hunger and satiety cues to follow baby’s lead.

Remind them that breastfed babies drink much less per bottle than formula fed babies, so that they are prepared for the difference.21

Learn more:

Formula Feeding On Demand vs on a Schedule

Breastfeeding On Demand vs on a Schedule

Understanding your Baby’s Hunger and Fullness Cues

Let's Chat!

We know parenting often means sleepless nights, stressful days, and countless questions and confusion, and we want to support you in your feeding journey and beyond.

Our Happy Baby Experts are a team of lactation consultants and registered dietitians certified in infant and maternal nutrition – and they’re all moms, too, which means they’ve been there and seen that. They’re here to help on our free, live chat platform Monday - Friday 8am-6pm (ET), and Saturday - Sunday 8am-2pm (ET).Chat Now!

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For more on this topic, check out the following articles:

Which foods should you avoid while breastfeeding?

What is Paced Bottle Feeding

Dealing with Low Breastmilk Supply

Causes and Symptoms of Mastitis during Breastfeeding