Pumping at Work: Tips for the Working Mama

When I first started thinking about the realities of having a baby, I often wondered how I would balance my dream of being a writer and researcher with my dream of having a child. Would I breastfeed during maternity leave and then have to stop? Would pumping at work even be an option? 

Basically, I wondered how the hell moms who go back to work manage to breastfeed, too?!

Questions like this one really make you think about just how difficult life can get for working parents. Here in the States, most of us get the barely humane requisite 12 weeks of unpaid FMLA leave, but at twelve weeks postpartum, our bodies are not even ready to get out of our postpartum pajamas, let alone think about going back to work.

I see you, friend. You’re covered in breast milk, spit-up, and last night’s takeout or some lasagna a friend delivered to you just in time to save your sanity. 

I see you worrying about how you’ll find pants that fit that you can wear to work. You’re worried about childcare and leaving your baby during the day. 

I see you already missing the connection between you and your child in the quiet moments you feed them.

Being a mom is so hard; being a mom who has to think about returning to work before you’re ready is REALLY hard. So what do you do if you want to return to work (or have to–we see you there, too), but you want to continue breastfeeding your baby? 

The answer for many of us is pumping at work. And guess what? Under the PUMP Act, you have the right to pump in a private space that is not a bathroom for up to one year after the birth of your baby.

I was super lucky that my boss had lobbied hard to get a Mother’s Lounge (AKA, a tiny closet, but with a small chair, a sink, and a mini fridge), and she was willing to adjust my course schedule to my pumping needs. But this is NOT normal, and even with these accommodations, the shift to pumping at work was really hard. 

While you might be feeling overwhelmed and scared (I know I was), please know that you CAN pump at work. How? We’ll show you! We’ve got everything you need to know about pumping at work, including how to store your milk so that you can take it home to that precious baby, and how you can safely and conveniently freeze your supply.

So microwave that cup of coffee for the third time, and come sit next to me. It’ll be hard to return to work, but having the information you need to help you confidently pump at work will make things just a little easier on you.

A huge thanks to Fairhaven Health for sponsoring this article. Fairhaven Health provides science-based products for your journey to parenthood–from fertility through pregnancy, breastfeeding, and beyond. Their support has allowed me to deep dive into the laws around pumping, survey moms for their top tips, and create the most comprehensive guide possible to make your life better, mama. Thanks, Fairhaven!

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Breastfeeding Laws at Work

I mentioned that pumping at work is protected by law, but it’s important to know your rights before you return to work after your maternity leave. 

Why? Because knowing these rights means that you don’t settle for anything less than being able to pump when you need to in a quiet, private space that is NOT also a public (or private) toilet.

Let’s get one thing very clear, mama: no one eats a full meal on the toilet, and you shouldn’t have to feed your child on one! 

Thank goodness laws like the PUMP (Providing Urgent Maternal Protections) Act of 2022, which was signed into law by President Biden, grant you the space and protection to do so.

What is the PUMP Act?

The PUMP Act is a federal legislation designed to provide essential workplace protections for nursing mothers. The acronym stands for “Providing Urgent Maternal Protections,” and true to its name, the act aims to ensure that we have the necessary accommodations to express breast milk during our work hours.

With more than 83% of American babies on the receiving end of breastmilk, this 2022 Act, which was originally introduced as the “Break Time Law” under the Affordable Care Act of 2010, is incredibly important to nursing moms. 

Your rights under the PUMP Act Include:

  1. Reasonable Break Time: Under the PUMP Act, employers are required to provide reasonable break time for moms to express our breast milk. These breaks should be paid if the company offers paid breaks for other employees. While the frequency and duration of these breaks may vary depending on your needs and state laws, the act acknowledges the importance of maintaining a consistent pumping schedule.
  2. Private Space: The act mandates that employers must provide a private and clean space, other than a bathroom, where we can express breast milk. This space must be shielded from view and free from intrusion by coworkers or the public (i.e. no one can interrupt you to ask you where a file is or complain that you’re taking too long). This ensures that we can pump comfortably and without being afraid that someone will barge in. 
  3. Coverage for Salaried and Hourly Employees: The PUMP Act covers both salaried and hourly employees, which extends its protections to a wide range of working women. Whether you’re working full-time, part-time, or on an irregular schedule, the law is designed to accommodate your needs!

Tips for Pumping at Work

Okay, now that you’re armed with your rights as a nursing mom, how do you actually go about doing it? 

If you’re picturing yourself holed up with your boob out while desperately trying to choke down a sandwich and answer some emails, you’re not alone. I was pretty freaked out about it until I realized that I was entitled to have a quiet and private space free from distractions and interruptions–including my own work.
But what else do you need? Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no. These tips will help prepare you for a successful pumping at work journey so you can focus on what really matters–like which breastfeeding snacks you should bring with you.

1. Plan Ahead By Communicating Openly

Honestly, this one scares the crap out of me. I don’t love communicating difficult things and am non-confrontational to a fault, so for someone like me, the idea of a conversation with your boss about pumping needs is SCARY. 

But please believe me when I say that open communication with your supervisor about your breastfeeding needs and schedule before you return to work–or as SOON as you set foot back in the door–is so important.

If you’re like me, having difficult conversations can be easier in writing. Plus, if you email your manager or supervisor your pumping at work questions, you will have their answers in writing in case you need to return to them later.

We recommend asking the following questions: 

  • What locations do you have available for me to pump that are free from distractions, including other employees and/or customers?
  • How can we work together to make sure that I stick to my pumping schedule?
  • Do any changes need to be made to our workflow as an office to allow me to pump on my baby’s schedule? 
  • If any problems or difficulties arise during the time that I am pumping at work, how should I go about raising them with you? 

Please don’t be afraid to email your supervisor these questions. Breastfeeding and pumping have been stigmatized as embarrassing for far too long. Approaching how you can pump at work in an open, matter-of-fact manner is the best way to make sure your workplace ensures that you can pump privately and on your schedule.

2. Schedule Your Pumping Time on Your Work Calendar

One thing that helped me when I first started working again after having my son was to put my pumping time on my Outlook Calendar. 

This effectively blocked off my 30-45 minutes (as needed) on my work calendar so that my coworkers could see that I would not be in meetings or taking calls during that time. I was teaching at Georgia Tech at this time, so I also noted on my syllabus that I would not be in my office during those times so that students wouldn’t randomly drop by and derail my pumping plans.

I also set a reminder within my work calendar to remind myself 10 minutes before my scheduled pumping time that I needed to wrap up a call or an email because soon I’d be working to feed my baby. This helped me transition from working time to pumping time.

You don’t necessarily have to schedule your time like this, but I found that it really helped both myself and my co-workers to know and get used to my schedule and understand that I was truly unavailable during my pumping times.

3. Create a Pumping Kit

A pumping kit is to work as a diaper bag is to leaving the house: you’re going to need it! It’s a great idea to have all your pumping supplies in one place to make getting out of the house easier on you in the mornings. 

There are lots of great options for bags to hold your pumping kit, and many of them can also double as a work bag, like this one, which has tons of room for your pump and accessories and also a sleeve for your laptop!

In your pumping kit, you’ll want to make sure you have the following:

4. Know How to Store Your Milk

One of the most challenging aspects of pumping at work is storing your milk. Do you put it in the community fridge? Pack a cooler and keep it under your desk? Walk around with it like you’re a breastfeeding version of Gollum and the ring whispering “my precious”? 

Honestly, we wouldn’t blame you if you felt like Gollum. Breast milk really is liquid gold, and you’ve just worked hard to create more milk for baby while you were AT WORK, so it’s crucial that you keep it cool and safe for them to consume later.

Here’s the good news: breast milk is considered food and not a biohazardous material, so you can (and should) store it in the refrigerator at work. You’ll probably want to have some sort of small cooler bag or insulated lunch box with your name on it, though, to make sure a coworker doesn’t accidentally grab it on their way out.

Freshly expressed breast milk is also relatively stable at room temp, so if you can’t get to your work fridge right after you pump, it will stay usable for up to four hours in a climate-controlled environment of up to 77 degrees Fahrenheit or colder. 

Check out the CDC’s full guidelines for storing human milk to learn more.

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5. Know How to Freeze Your Milk

If everything is going well with pumping at work, you’ll likely have milk to freeze when you get home. Knowing how to freeze your breast milk before you start pumping at work is an excellent way to get ahead of the game. 

First up, go home and clean out that freezer for breast milk freezer storage. You do not need seven bags of frozen peas, nor are you ever going to actually eat your frozen wedding cake. Now that you’ve got your freezer space decluttered and sanitized, you’re ready to start thinking about storing your milk in the freezer.

You’ll need several relatively inexpensive items to get yourself ready for freezing your milk at home, which is where Fairhaven Health comes in. Fairhaven has an excellent system for storing breast milk that we absolutely love!

Fairhaven Health Milkies Freeze Storage System

The Milkies Storage System was a lifesaver for me when I was pumping at work and dealing with breast milk oversupply. Here’s my step-by-step system for storing your milk with Milkies:

Make sure you look have Milkies breast milk storage bags (you don’t have to use Milkies breast milk storage bags, but we love them–no leaks, and the bags have storage guidelines printed right on them!).

After filling your storage bags, label them with the date and time, and use the Milkies Freeze Breast Milk Storage System, which can store up to 60 ounces of breast milk. 

a blonde woman in a pink shirt stands in a kitchen, enthusiastically showing off two different breastmilk storage solutions. Her left hand is on top of the Milkies milk bag freezer storage organizer, while her right hand is holding Milkies Milk Trays with 5 sticks of frozen breastmilk in it.

The Milkies system uses a “first in, first out” system so you don’t have to think about which breast milk storage bag you should use first. Trust me, at three am, this is a lifesaver.

Plus, this system allows you to organize your milk in one place in your freezer, so it’s incredibly easy to get to and find when you need it (another handy late-night feeding advantage).

You can also freeze some of your milk in Milkies Milk Trays. These trays are so convenient! They store one ounce of milk to make feeding your baby the appropriate amount super easy. 

Milkies trays are made from food-grade plastic that is free from bisphenol-A (BPA), phthalates, and dyes, and my favorite part is that they fit into bottles, so you can just pop one in when you need it!

Another great part about Milkies Milk Trays is that they are super versatile.

Once you’re done with this phase (go you!), you can use them to freeze baby food.

6. Look At Pictures of Your Baby While You Pump

Getting into the right headspace for pumping can be important when you first start pumping at work. I know you’re probably wondering how one goes about getting into the right headspace when twenty minutes ago you were in a board meeting or deep in an Excel spreadsheet, but there is a way to transition!

Once you get into your quiet breastfeeding space, whip out your boob AND your phone, but don’t go straight back to your emails, my friend. Trust me on this one. Open your photos app and look at pictures and videos of your baby. 

Why, you ask? Well, doing so actually produces the “feel-good” hormone oxytocin, which helps with your milk letdown. This way, you can actually have more frequent and faster letdowns to help you get the most out of your scheduled nursing time.

7. Establish A Supportive Breastfeeding Community

Did you know that clinical studies have shown that breastfeeding support can actually keep you from quitting breastfeeding earlier in your child’s life than you want to? Breastfeeding support is crucial!

We support breastfeeding moms in all iterations, including breastfeeding moms who pump at work! And one of the best ways we can think of to help you keep this going is for you to establish a support network. 

Talk to your favorite coworker about how they can support you at work. If you don’t have someone at work you trust to encourage you, have a friend on call to text you and encourage you. Have your partner pack your pumping at work kit and/or make sure your pump parts are clean each night. 

You weren’t made to do this alone, and that includes pumping at work. Delegate what you can, friend, including encouragement and support. 

Getting the Most Out of Pumping at Work

Just writing this article makes me wish I could give you a hug, mama. Going back to work three months after having a baby is no joke, and trying to pump while you’re there can be its own thing.

Hopefully, with these pumping-at-work tips, you can be more ready for what’s to come. If you’re anything like me, preparation (and some sort of control) for what’s to come is really helpful for your mental health. I love feeling like I’ve done everything I can to control and prepare for what’s to come.

We hope that your pumping-at-work journey is a smooth one. Remember to practice gratitude for the nutrition you provide for your baby, as well as self-care for your postpartum body. You can do this!

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What are your favorite tips for pumping at work?

Helpful Breastfeeding Resources