Breastfeeding at Work

By Kristie Reilly @YourCareE
August 29, 2023
Breastfeeding at Work

Breastfeeding has health benefits for both mothers and babies. If you have to go back to work after your delivery, you can still breastfeed. Here's how.

If you’ve just had a baby, the decision to breastfeed is a very personal choice, one that may be complicated to schedule, particularly if you’re returning to work.

Yet there are significant risks if you don’t breastfeed, says Leigh Anne O’Connor, a board-certified and private practice lactation consultant and La Leche League leader. “Women are intelligent, and they can make an informed decision,” she says.

Yet many women may not be aware of the medical reasons for breastfeeding. “Nobody wants to hurt anybody’s feelings,” she says, “but … it’s riskier for your baby and for your health to not breastfeed.”


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A mother who breastfeeds is less likely to develop breast or ovarian cancer and postpartum depression, O’Connor notes, while babies who breastfeed are not as likely to develop type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease later in life, or to need orthodontics.

Breastfeeding also enhances your connection with your child, and may help a baby’s cognitive development. Babies who breastfeed have a two- to seven-point higher IQ, on average, than those who do not.

“Other health issues, we don’t skirt around,” she says. But “once people hear that, a lightbulb goes off, and it makes more sense,” O’Connor says. “People understand that it’s like medicine.”

That doesn’t mean it’s easy, particularly in today’s two-income families. There may be obstacles to surmount, she explains: “Is it hard? Is it easy? Is her pump working? What’s [a mother’s] history — was she ever assaulted? It’s so loaded. It’s not just black and white.”

Barriers may be mechanical, such as figuring out just how to pump effectively on a schedule that works for you and your baby. Or they may be job-related, such as negotiating with your employer time and comfortable conditions to pump. Either way, O’Connor says, “it is such an important issue, because most women are working these days outside of the home, and probably the biggest barrier to breastfeeding is separation of mother and baby.”

If you’re thinking about how to broach the topic of pumping at work, know that the Affordable Health Care Act requires employers with 50 or more employees to have a private space that’s not a bathroom set aside where mothers can pump. (For state-specific laws, check this helpful U.S. map, clickable by state, from advocacy group Legal Momentum.)

Unfortunately, the law applies only to hourly employees, not to those who are salaried. Even if the law does apply to you, O’Connor says, “laws are one thing, but the reality of the culture in which women work is another.”

She suggests folding requirements for pumping into the initial announcement of your pregnancy.

“Women have this tendency to ask permission,” she says. But rather than do so, “a lot of women who have great success say, ‘Hi, I’m going to be having this baby, so I’ll be out of work for 12 or 16 weeks, and when I come back, I’ll be pumping. I noticed we don’t have a pumping room, so can we get a shoji screen or dedicate an office or an area that’s not a bathroom for me?’”

Be sure to let your employer know it will help you keep a regular work schedule because your child is less likely to be sick. You might even create a support group for working moms to raise awareness and foster acceptance, O’Connor suggests.

Most importantly, don’t let other people’s discomfort deter you. “A mother just has to own it and not apologize,” she says. If other people are uncomfortable, they can leave the room. “Once people get it out there and go, ‘Oh, I have these rights,’ then we’re going to be more of a breastfeeding culture.”

For moms who are considering pumping when they return to work, here are O’Connor’s helpful tips.

  • Breast milk can stay at room temperature for four to six hours, as long as your hands and the environment are clean. So, you can pump at work, keep the pump parts in a Ziploc or other sanitary spot, and wait to wash them until you’re at home.
  • Make breastfeeding the last thing you do before separating from your baby and the first thing you do upon reuniting. “It takes the pressure off the pump,” O’Connor says, and helps you reconnect. It also gives you time to check in with the person who is caring for your baby. Ask how the day went or share pertinent information about your child in the morning with your care provider.
  • Pump as soon as you arrive at work. On average, you’ll need to pump two to three times during a workday, so getting one out of the way first thing will free up space later in the day, O’Connor says. Then you’ll have the rest of your day to pump two times.
  • Feeding schedules can vary depending on how old your baby is and your milk storage capacity. Consider going home at lunch to breastfeed if you can — another way to stay connected, O’Connor says. But be careful about sleep training when going back to work because it may interfere with feeding. Sleep within arm’s reach of your baby, with the baby in the same room in a safe bed, to allow for one to two feedings during the night. “That keeps the milk production up and it keeps the baby connected,” she says, “but, more importantly, it keeps the baby fed.”


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August 29, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN