August 23, 2011

Tips from One Working and Nursing Mom to Another - Part 2: Before Maternity Leave

Making the commitment to continue breastfeeding when returning to work can be challenging and sometimes so daunting that it's difficult to imagine being able to continue.  This is especially true when mothers discourage other mothers from even trying to make the effort, as I explored in Part 1 of this topic.

Nursing is a very personal decision, and making the decision to breastfeed should be supported by those around us.  New mothers need this support because nursing, especially in those first weeks, is usually not easy.  It takes time to get the latch right, time to allow your milk supply to stabilize, time to grow accustomed to the time commitment involved with nursing, and a lot of support from our spouse or significant other.   This is all, of course, in addition to the other challenges faced by new mothers.

When it comes to working and continuing to nurse, mothers are often faced with a whole new set of challenges.

I work for a small company, and when I was pregnant, we were just under fifty employees.  This meant that I was only allotted six weeks total of maternity leave under federal and California law.  Paityn and I had a very difficult time with nursing during those first weeks; she nursed, quite literally, almost 24 hours a day.  While some mothers track the length of their nursing sessions, I tracked the length of our breaks.

It had been my goal, at first, to nurse for my maternity leave.  Then, once things were going better, I decided I wanted to try to go three months.  And then it was six months, and then a year.  We're still nursing at 2 years!  Looking back, I wish I could tell that exhausted, crying, discouraged mother of that needy newborn that it really was all worth it, and it would get better someday.

And I also wish I had been better prepared for pumping at work.  There are usually two sides to the breastfeeding story.  One one end, there is the "it's way too hard" side.  On the opposite end, there is the "it's so easy" side.  The truth lies somewhere in the middle.  Just as I felt unprepared for the difficulties involved in breastfeeding, I felt unprepared for the challenges involved in pumping and nursing when I returned to work.

My experience is only my own, and I can only share what I personally learned.  I would love for other moms (or dads!) to leave comments on their experiences or share tips. 

Before Maternity Leave

1.  Talk with your boss about your desire to breastfeed before you go on maternity leave, even if this is only a potential plan for you that depends upon your later decisions.  It's better to talk before than wait until just before you return or when you actually do return.  This can cause employers to feel ambushed.

Approach this discussion from a cooperative attitude. "I wanted to discuss with you beforehand how we would be handling my desire to continue to breastfeed my child after I return to work.  It's very important to me to remain an effective employee, so I think if we work out the details beforehand, we will help make my transition back to work much smoother."

Remember, you are not asking for special treatment.  You are requesting that your legal rights be fulfilled so that you can care for yourself and your baby which only ends up benefiting your employer as well (see number 3).   Above all, be accommodating and willing to compromise on the methods of getting you pumping time and location.

2. When you have this conversation, make sure you come prepared.  Know your legal rights (in case this should come up).  If they do, be non-confrontational and view this as an opportunity to work together with your employer to adhere to the law.
  •  Section 4207 of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (also known as Health Care Reform), amended the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), or federal wage and hour law. The amendment requires employers to provide reasonable break time and a private, non-bathroom place for nursing mothers to express breast milk during the workday, for one year after the child’s birth. The new requirements became effective when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law on March 23, 2010.  

  • It's important to note that the new law does not apply to companies of under 50 people if the company can prove due hardship if the employee is given breaks to pump.  (This means, that technically, I was not legally covered by the law.  In these cases, it is more important than ever to work closely with your employer to reach a mutually agreeable method to allow you to pump and still get your work done.) 

3.  Discuss the benefits of breastfeeding with your employer.  

One major benefit is that breastfed children tend to be sick less often.  In the past two years, I have taken only one day off to stay home with Paityn because of illness.  I have been sick more often than she has!

Research indicates that "working mothers who continue nursing also have higher morale and, perhaps most interesting, tend to return to work earlier from maternity leave, presumably because they are less concerned about the effect of their return on the nursing relationship." (source: Mothering Magazine via La Leche League)

For myself, although I work, returning home every day to nurse Paityn made me feel that we have a very close bond with each other.  I feel that being able to continue nursing when I returned to work is directly related to my decision to remain in the work force instead of quit.  I saved my company the work and hassle of finding another employee because they made some slight accommodations for me. 

For more information, view The Business Case for Breastfeeding.  This is information collected from a 2008 study by the US Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women's Health.  The findings demonstrate an impressive return on investment for employers that provide workplace lactation support, including lower health care costs, absenteeism, and turnover rates. Employees whose companies provide breastfeeding support consistently report improved morale, better satisfaction with their jobs, and higher productivity.    

The same site has a pamphlet that details their findings in a more readable format.  It would be a handy thing to take to give your employer when you go to talk with him or her. 

4.  Discuss a flexible schedule with your employer.  Will they allow you to return to work part-time and ease back into full-time?  Can they be flexible with the hours you work and allow some time to be working from home?  Can you return to work on a Wednesday or Thursday instead of a Monday to allow for a easier transition? 

I realize that some jobs just do not offer that kind of flexibility.  I'm very blessed to have a flexible boss/employer who worked with me on my return.  However, unless you ask, you don't know what your employer may be willing to do for you.  I was nervous about asking, too, but it's an important conversation. 

5.  Discuss the following with your boss: time, location, and storage. 

  • Time.  According to the new FLSA law, employers must provide "a reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk."  This is acceptably considered to be 15-20 minutes every two to three hours.  However, it took me 30 to 40 minutes.  It's important to set up reasonable expectations with an employer.  I took breaks every three hours for approximately 30 minutes.  If I was only allotted 15 to 20 minutes, I would have taken breaks every two hours.  Rather than get too specific, just let your employer know that you will need breaks every two to three hours lasting approximately 15-30 minutes each.  Remind your employer that these times are not compensated, and offer to use your lunch break for one of the pumping sessions.  Describe how you might plan to make up for your pumping time by multi-tasking during pumping sessions (I always used mine to answer emails). 
  • Location.  Again, referring to the new FLSA law, employers must provide "a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk."  This particular section is primarily important.  It is not sanitary to pump in a bathroom, and employers must provide another suitable location. It's best to come armed with your own ideas of pumping locations (empty office, location suitable to put up a dividers, or some might even prefer to just go out to her car).
  •  Storage.  The law does not stipulate storage requirements.  Most work places do have refrigerators that can be used. (I highly recommend purchasing a special storage bag for your expressed milk; I simply used an extra insulated lunch tote we already had.  This prevents accidents like your milk being lost or knocked over and also makes it easier for you to keep track of it.)  Otherwise, a cooler with a  sufficient number of ice packs would work.  Breastmilk can be stored in a cooler with icepacks for up to 24 hours.  Additionally, please note that expressed breast milk can sit at room temperature (no higher than 79 degrees F) for up to 10 hours, although I do find sites that recommend only 6 hours. 
6.  Make sure to get any agreements in writing, even if it is just through a follow up email sent after the discussion.  Depending on the length of your maternity leave, your employer may have forgotten agreements made or a new boss may present. 
I work in validation (don't ask- it's an unbelievably long and boring explanation), and a popular saying is, "If it's not documented, it didn't happen." 
Along these same lines, right before you return from maternity leave, it would be helpful to contact your employer to make sure all your arrangements are still acceptable. 
7.  Start to do some research into types of pumps. 
When you return to work, your pump will become your very best friend.  Selecting a pump, like choosing a friend, is important. 
If you plan on pumping several times a day, a manual pump will not be effective at maintaining your supply.  You will need an electric pump, and now is not the time to save money or skimp.  I have used all different kinds of pumps, from the hospital grade ones to high end electrical pumps to cheap electrical pumps to manual pumps.  Trust me, there is a huge difference. 
I do not recommend actually purchasing at this time as circumstances change, and you may decide you don't want to return to work.  But, after the baby has arrived, your time will be severely limited, your focus will be on other concerns, and it will be more difficult to do all the research then. 
8.  Know who to contact if your employer acts dismissive of your rights. 
No one wants to believe that employers could be so uncaring as to dismiss the rights of a nursing mother, but unfortunately, this does happen.  If your employer is unwilling to work with you regarding pumping at work, contact The U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division (WHD) via the toll-free  number 1-866-487-9243.  They will direct you to the nearest WHD office for assistance. The WHD Web site provides basic information about how to file a complaint and how the WHD will investigate complaints. 
I don't personally have experience with this particular issue, but I would think that all avenues should be explored before contacting the WHD.  Although you might end up being able to pump at work, you also might end up dealing with other repercussions from that action that might make your work environment very difficult for you.  It's certainly not fair and not right, but it is a potential reality. 
I'm linking up this post with Oh Amanda's Top Ten Tuesday.  Forgive me for not having a full ten today!  I think my wordiness made up for my lack of numbers.


  1. This is so helpful! I look forward to needing to know all of these tips. :)

  2. I definitely hope these help you in the future! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. I nursed my daughter for exactly 2 years and 2 weeks. It was hard. Many times I was frustrated. But after I quit, I did miss that time with her. I am thankful I could stay home with her that whole time. I didn't have to pump at all. Thank you for these great tips and advice. This is great information.

    Thank you for visiting my blog too. I appreciate it. Come back by again anytime. Enjoy the rest of your week.

    LaVonne @ Long Wait For Isabella

  4. That's wonderful! I know I will miss it, too, when we are done.


Thank you for reading and taking the time to share your thoughts. Your comments are so appreciated!