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Preparing to Return to Work While Breastfeeding

Breastfed Matters:
Preparing to Return to Work

By Michelle Branco

Q: I am returning to full-time work in two months and want to keep nursing my eleven-month-old baby. I want to prepare to make this go as smoothly as possible. Should I gradually stop nursing her while during the hours that she’ll be at daycare to get her used to it?

A: Returning to work outside the home after being with your baby for her whole existence is a big step – planning ahead is key. However, actively discouraging breastfeeding throughout the day may cause premature weaning, which doesn’t seem like your objective.

Consider a different strategy. Maximize the breastfeeding you do when you are with her and plan ahead for when you are not. There’s no need to “train” her not to expect the breast when you’re not there: She’ll know!

At twelve months, many babies will do fine without breastmilk during the working day – preferring to breastfeed more in the evening and at night. While mothers may need a few days to regulate their supply, many find that they can comfortably be away from their baby for nine to ten hours without pumping.

Plan to provide breast milk for the first few weeks and see how she’s doing. Let her take the lead. If she’s not eating very much food (not all babies do at this age) or you have other concerns about her growth, encouraging that breast milk during the day may be necessary. Offer breast milk in a cup; bottles are not necessary at this age. In fact, doctors and dentists usually suggest recommend weaning from the bottle at this age.

Expressing milk a couple times a day to build up a bit of “stash” over the next few weeks will give you practice and also take some of the pressure off in the early weeks. Hand expression is an important skill to learn, if you haven’t already mastered it. Even if you use a mechanical pump, you never know when you’ll be unexpectedly without it. There are excellent online videos – you can reach them through the resources page of my website or Google “Marmet technique.”

Whether or not you need a mechanical pump really depends on how quickly and how much you need to express. Some mothers get great results from hand expression, but sometimes we just don’t have the time to devote to perfecting the technique. If you were feeding a younger baby, a double electric pump would usually be the most appropriate choice. You may already have one; if so, you can certainly use it. Many pumps convert to a manual mode that can be less cumbersome to transport.

Breast milk storage depends on how long you need to store. Freeze breast milk in glass containers in small amounts (2-3 oz/60-100mls). Once you are regularly expressing and sending milk, you can also just refrigerate it for the new day (or several days). La Leche League International publishes storage guidelines.

A daycare provider who is supportive of you as a family is respectful of your parenting decisions. A daycare provider should learn how to serve breast milk, provide an opportunity for you to breastfeed at drop-off and pick-up, and not suggest weaning as a solution to separation anxiety or sleep troubles. Weaning is not a solution to either. Reach out to other mothers who have also returned to work, either through formal groups like La Leche League or just within your group of friends. Often the most creative solutions come from other mothers, not the “experts.”

Figuring out how to manage your life after you return to work is about more than having breastmilk on hand and choosing the right daycare provider. Going back to work has a lot in common with adjusting to a newborn – it’s often harder because family and friends don’t recognize its significance.

A Few Tips

* If you can return gradually a few days a week over several weeks, consider it. If you can’t, then at least return mid-week so that your first week is not a whole five days of being away.
* Eating nourishing, whole foods is even more important as you and your baby spend more time out in the world with all its germs and stresses.
* Time to refill the freezer! Easy meals means you’ll feel less rushed after work when baby really wants to reconnect and you’ll be less likely to fall into the fast food take-out trap.
* Re-balance the sharing of household chores, recognizing that the priority is spending time with your baby.
* Go easy on yourself – transitions take time.

By having breastfed for almost a year already, you have a big advantage: You know that breastfeeding changes over time. The periods of change are usually not very comfortable – often, weaning seems like the only possible outcome. Yet, the connection with your baby overcomes the problems – and breastfeeding becomes an integral part of the new routine.

Michelle Branco is a lactation consultant in private practice, La Leche League Leader, and mother to Isabelle and Thomas, both breastfed. She provides evidence-based breastfeeding care to mothers at Latch Lactation through phone, email, and in-person consultations. Contact her at

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