Pumping, nursing, babies, and time

In last week’s episode of Best of Both Worlds (the one that featured the interview with Kristen from The Frugal Girl), the question section featured a listener who was having a rough time returning to work after having her second child. She was feeling behind on everything, and she also mentioned pumping at work. A number of listeners drew connections between these two.

Pumping takes a lot of time. Nursing mothers who choose to pump at work generally need to stop what they’re doing multiple times during the work day for some amount of time (often 30 minutes or so, plus pump assembly and milk storage takes time…). Some folks are able to continue working while pumping, but this doesn’t always work. Pumping also isn’t a particularly pleasant experience, especially if you are aiming for a certain number of ounces and seem to feed a child more easily than you fill a bottle. (Cue watching the drops…)

Sarah and my advice was to let a lot of other things go, and recognize that these rough months wouldn’t last forever, but some people noted that we could have mentioned that pumping is optional.

So, in case anyone is wondering, pumping is 100 percent optional! Breastfeeding itself is optional, but pumping is especially so. This listener was a few weeks back at work after a 5 month maternity leave, so the baby was pretty much old enough to be starting solid foods anyway (at around 6 months). It might be possible to scale down the pumping (to maybe once a day), have the baby scale up the solids during the work day and nurse in the morning, and after work and more on demand on weekends. Or the listener could skip pumping entirely, and use formula during the work day and nurse when she wasn’t at work. All of these would be ways to continue breastfeeding without some of the time pressure.

However, I do know from long experience talking with new parents that the belief is out there that feeding breastmilk exclusively (whether nursing or pumping or some combination thereof) until age 12 months is what a good mother “must” do. I can disagree with this story — plenty of amazing moms do not do this — but I know it can be a deeply held belief.

Less fraught: There are also a number of moms who do enjoy breastfeeding and would like to keep it up as long as possible, and who find it easier to nurse at night/mornings/weekends when the supply is high, which pumping frequently does facilitate.

In any case, if you do want to breastfeed for a while, and intend to go back to work before a baby is 12 months old, there are a few options.

Obviously extending a maternity leave as much as possible helps. A three month old baby needs to be fed more frequently, and can only have milk/formula. A six month old baby is a different story. (Of course, our listener had already done this, so it’s not a fool proof answer for lowering breastfeeding stress.)

Working from home as much as possible for the few months after returning to work is also a good way to have the best of both worlds. If you have a nanny (or other parent/relative) caring for your baby, you can have that person bring you the baby at feeding times. I have found it possible to edit or type one-handed or be on some phone calls while nursing (you start dividing your contacts into People I Can Call While Nursing A Baby and People I Cannot Call While Nursing A Baby). Since you’re not commuting, this can also make for a shorter day away from the baby.

Post-Covid this is an option for a lot more jobs than it used to be. It doesn’t have to be either/or — working from home 2-3 days per week and from the office 2-3 days per week would still reduce the total number of feedings that must be pumped.

I know not all jobs can be done from home. For those that can’t be, negotiating for a temporary part-time schedule if you want to breastfeed exclusively might make the first few months back at work feel more doable (though it is going to involve a pay cut that might make life feel less doable…so your mileage may vary). If the organization knows this is not forever, but just for 6 months or so, that might make it easier to get to yes. Then this would reduce the number of feedings away from the baby too.

As for the pumps themselves, I know that some people have had luck with Elvie and Willow and other such “wearable” (and theoretically quiet) pumps. I bought one and was planning to try it out with my fifth kid during long airplane rides and such — and then Covid happened and I didn’t leave the house for months, to the point where the baby refused to even take a bottle. So! I welcome reports of other people’s experiences with whether that made it possible to work while pumping. Again, not all work is the same — it might be possible to do a phone call with a wearable pump but potentially not lead a class of first graders…

If you worked away from home and pumped, what tips would you add for the listener?

In other news: I thought that my trip to Paris might lead the toddler to lose interest in “mommy milk.” I did not bring my pump, though (perhaps TMI) I did express milk daily. I returned home Thursday night, took him upstairs with some “baba milk” and rocked him. He drank the bottle for a while, then looked at me and said “Me want mommy milk.” I guess he didn’t forget. It’s fine. He won’t still be breastfeeding while learning to drive.

In other other news: Friend of the blog Camille Pagán has a brand new novel out this week! It’s called Everything Must Go, and it’s got her trademark witty take on women’s relationships with family and friends. Plus, the main character is a professional organizer, so the “everything must go” concept takes on multiple meanings…If you have a Kindle Unlimited account, then the book is free. Please check it out!


19 thoughts on “Pumping, nursing, babies, and time

  1. I’ve had two kids and pumped at work after returning (3 month maternity leave) for both of them. The short answer is just that it’s hard, and all the hacks in the world will never make up the time that it takes. I was lucky in that I have my own office with a door that locks and a mini-fridge right outside in our common area, so I theoretically should have been able to do a lot while pumping, but I found that I couldn’t do deep work. Phone calls and light emails, yes (and like Laura, I had a list of people I could talk to while pumping vs. people I couldn’t). I also used to schedule a coffee date with a friend about once a week during a pump session – she worked down the hall and we were close enough that I felt fine having her in my office while pumping. In this way, I sort of viewed it as a ‘break’ and then just embraced the fact that I was making a conscious choice to stop working for 30 mins and socialize. Sort of a sanity-saver.

    Other more logistical things that can help:
    – Pumping 2x/day vs. 3. You get 30 minutes back doing it this way.
    – Pumping on the commute (mine was ~45 mins and I had a car adapter. I’d set up before I started driving and just disconnect when I got to home or work. If I did this there and back then I’d only pump once during the day)
    – Having enough sets of pump stuff that you don’t have to clean it at work – either a set that you keep in the fridge and use multiple times, or three sets of stuff to use a clean one each session.
    – Get extra pumps. At one point I owned three pumps – one that lived at work, one that lived at home, and one that lived in my car. I appreciated having all three and didn’t drag them around.
    – If possible, pump into bags rather than bottles (just for space-saving). I thought they sealed more reliably and were easier to transport (I just used a soft-sided lunch bag with a built-in freezer pack). I would also try to minimize what you have to carry back and forth. I always had an oversupply at the beginning so had a freezer stash before going back to work. This way, I’d pump into bags and freeze them when I got home. I kept mine in shoeboxes and would give my daycare provider a new shoebox whenever she was running low – that also meant I didn’t have to prepare bottles for daycare since she would just thaw a bag of milk and pour into bottles there. (Not sure daycare centers will do this but our in-home provider said it was so easy!)

    Realistically, though, it’s just going to be a period of some number of months where you’re a little less productive. And that’s fine!!! Because it’s finite and the time will open up again in the future. It’s hard to see that while you’re in it but it becomes very clear once you’re on the other side.

    1. Yes to all this! It’s HARD! I went back at 10 weeks with both my kids and I felt like my life (especially with my first, as I struggled to produce enough) was a giant clock constantly ticking toward the next pumping/nursing session. In retrospect I should have not pushed as hard as I did. But I didn’t know that then. I second the suggestion to just put all the pump parts directly into a fridge or cooler to cut down on the washing. I also kept my pump in my bottom big file drawer and kept it mostly closed while pumping and that kept down the noise. I don’t remember when I stopped pumping, but I nursed at night until 16 months and it was the best thing ever to hold my warm squishy child and rock him in the quiet.

  2. Ugh. Pumping. I pumped for both of my kids. I exclusively pumped for my first child because he would not latch/transfer milk. I was able to stop pumping at 10 months and had enough supply to get him to 13 months! For #2, he nursed well from the start so I only had to pump when I went back to work around 5 months. Luckily with #2, I WFH for his first 15 months of life. So I was able to just hook up and keep working. With #1, I had to go to a pumping room and I could not get work done down there. I heard of moms bringing their laptop down with them but that would not have worked for me. So to the extent possible, working from home for as long and as much as possible while pumping is ideal. With #2, I pumped until around 11.5 months and then called it good enough. I nursed him until around 16 months when I got the stomach flu. I had him down to 1 nursing session and figured it would be hard to wean him, but the flu took care of that. I had the stomach flu 3 freaking times while nursing/pumping for our son and dang it tanks your supply. It was so hard to get it back up after the other 2 times so when I got the flu for the 3rd time when the baby was 16 months I decided it was a sign to be done.

    Before I had #2, I told my husband and best friend to NOT LET ME EXCLUSIVELY PUMP if #2 did not latch. It is amazing what we as moms will guilt ourselves into. I found pumping to be so soul-sucking so I could not EP again. Luckily it wasn’t necessary but I made a plan ahead of time to make sure the important people in my life would intervene and make sure I didn’t let mom guilt force me into another year of EP’ing!

    One last thing I have to say is that it worked really well for me to pump after the first feed of the day starting around when the baby was 2 months. I did that most days for several months so I got a nice surplus supply going which was very helpful – especially when I had the stomach flu and my supply tanked and for times when I couldn’t quite keep up with the baby’s needs.

    1. Lisa, I love your plan so much and I plan to steal it when I have #2! Early postpartum can be so emotional, it is such a good idea to set this plan in place before you’re sleep-deprived and mired in hormones.

  3. I just went back to work (second baby is six months) and am lucky to be working exclusively from home through June. I have found pumping at home so, so much easier than it was with my first in an office. I’m able to pump through meetings (have checked with formerly pumping coworkers that they cannot hear the pump), making it a less stressful experience and less time-crunched. I keep pump parts in the fridge and fill bottles as I go so it’s all ready by the time I pick up baby from daycare. I am using a regular Medela but also have a Baby Buddha for some increased mobility if needed (and it was great on a plane trip recently). With my first, I weaned down so that we were just nursing at night and in the morning and he was getting formula during the day by eight months and that worked great. He kept that schedule until we fully weaned at one year. I agree this mom should do what makes life easier for her – formula is great, and I hated pumping around the clock the first time around.

  4. Laura, aren’t you still breastfeeding your 2+ year-old toddler? Seems duplicitous to casually espouse advice on dropping the guilt about when you can stop breastfeeding a baby when you yourself are continuing to breastfeed a toddler.

    1. Duplicitous equals lying; she just put the truth out their for everyone.

      Breastfeeding is really a personal choice and just because Laura is giving productivity advice doesn’t mean she has to use every tip all the time. The point of productivity is to use the time saved to get the life you want. If for Laura that means extended BF with her youngest, it doesn’t negate the rest of her advice.

      I kept an extra pump and parts at work. Anyone who called while I was pumping got to hear whatever unless it was an extremely serious life-or-death discussion. I think that only happened twice. Most of the time, others had no idea what was happening, the only persons who seemed (minimally) distracted by the sound were the older cardiologists. (I figure turn about is fairplay though because they always have weird sounds in their background too.)

  5. I had low supply (both times) and pumped for over a month with my first child. It was horrible and for well over a year it basically ruined me mentally (I know there are lots of other things at work post partum, but the failure to be able to breastfeed was the worst).
    I felt like a complete and utter disaster. I felt my body had failed me. I feel 100x better about it now, but it took a lot of work to get to that point.
    While I believe breast is best, ultimately what is best for the mother is almost always the best-best. It was pushed so heavily where I live to avoid formula at all costs. Thankfully I had a great doctor, but going to baby-and-mom groups where I was the only one with a bottle felt terrible.
    My best friend changed my whole mindset by telling me: “She [referencing my daughter] can still be a doctor.” That one sentence freed me from the shame, but this came when my daughter was about 2.
    That sentence gave me the courage to say: I COULDN’T nurse and in the grand scheme of things, that fact was unlikely to make one iota of difference in my daughter’s future.
    I tried for a week with my son and then stopped.

    1. I really struggled with low supply with my daughter, and she had latching issues as well. Looking back I’m not sure why I pushed so hard for so long, except that breastfeeding is really emphasized. I had an excellent lactation consultant and a very supportive husband, who both eventually (gently) told me that it was time to stop. I was very upset at first that it didn’t work for me but it was also an enormous relief.

      I have to say though, between the hormones and emotional weight of breastfeeding, along with societal pressure, it would have been very hard for me to hear Laura and Sarah tell me I could stop, knowing they both exclusively breastfed for extended periods. It would have been hard for me to hear that from anyone who breastfed for an extended period and/or didn’t struggle to produce milk or have other issues. (This is in no way meant to criticize Laura, Sarah, or anyone else for their choices and efforts surrounding breastfeeding.) Looking at my very bright 3.5 year old now, I sometimes wonder what I was so worried about, but everything feels so high stakes in the beginning.

      Somewhere I read “you can’t look at a classroom of kindergartners and tell who was breastfed and who had formula,” and that made me feel much better. Also reading Cribsheet by Emily Oster, in which she looks at the data we have for breastfed vs. formula fed kids in various metrics, and it doesn’t show much of a difference.

      Two other things I thought of and meant to comment on the original post for that episode:
      1. Laura has mentioned this before and I think it bears repeating: at work during this time period you might be as productive as the most mediocre male in your workplace, and that is more than fine. If the listener has work that really needs to be finished up outside of work hours that is one thing, but if it is just a feeling that she is not as productive as she could/should be, I would let that go for the time being.

      2. In addition to realizing this just might be a tough time for a while, I think it’s also reasonable to point out that there are systemic limitations and inadequacies that are making it even more difficult. I think sometimes we feel like we are failing without realizing that there are outside forces making things harder than they have to be. Even if you feel like you are lucky, as this listener might feel grateful she had a five month maternity leave, it still doesn’t mean there are adequate societal and structural supports for new mothers. Realizing that can take some of the weight off our shoulders.

      1. @Caitlin – thanks for these comments. I agree that if someone is having a rough go of it, telling them “just give the baby a bottle!” can seem insensitive. Our assumption was that pumping was very important to the listener, and hence that’s one of the reasons we didn’t say to let it go. And yes, don’t compare yourself to your ideal, compare yourself to a mediocre male colleague. You might feel better!

  6. I used to have an external pump and would wash all the pump parts each time. A mom told me to take those parts and throw them
    In a ziploc bag in the fridge and then take home to wash once a week. Game changer!

  7. With my first I breastfed and pumped exclusively. She never had a drop of formula. But I hated pumping. After reading Emily Oster on the true benefits of breast milk (not as much as we’ve been led to believe!) when I went back to work with my second, also at seven months, I gave myself the gift of not pumping. It has been amazing! I still enjoy breastfeeding, and am lucky to be in walking distance of daycare so I have been nursing at lunch. But the baby still gets some formula. It’s been very freeing to let that go!

  8. These conversations are always so interesting. I didn’t breastfed because…. I didn’t want to. Gasp. I know. You don’t have to. You can stop today. You can stop tomorrow. You can stop in two years. If people in your lives are pressuring you, it’s time to tell them to buzz off.

    My formula fed child is now 8 years old. There are no markers on his classmates re who was breastfed, formula fed, pump fed, mixed fed, whatever. It just ain’t that deep. If you do your own research, you may also find the evidence that breast milk is the gold standard has flaws. I am not only referring to Emily Oster (because I know people have their own opinions about her!).

    1. @Milly- Sarah and I have had Emily Oster on the podcast twice! But yes, the pressure winds up far higher than is probably justified.

  9. I pumped at work for several months, and having the freemie in bra pump definitely helped. If you combine that with a headset that has a microphone near your mouth (think call centre type) no one will know you are pumping while on a call or zoom meeting. The biggest pain of it all was cleaning – so many pieces and none of it is dishwasher safe!

  10. I also pumped for both babies after returning to work after my 3-month maternity leave. I pumped until they were each a year old, but I vaguely feel like I dropped from 3x/day to 1x by the end. I’m an attorney, so I got a lock installed on my office, put a “do not disturb” sign on my door and blocked myself out from outlook for meetings. I used the medela, but got a hands-free pumping bra, so I could type while working. Like others, I also put everything in a mini-fridge in my office (including pump parts), so I didn’t have to wash things at the office. I left the pump at my office except for weekends when I pumped to go on runs/dates (alas, too rarely!), etc. I also bought lots of extra bottles, so I could pump directly into clean bottles even if the daycare lost one/we forgot to clean them, etc. Good luck! If it is personally important to you, I hope you can make it work! If not, I hope you can find some peace in bucking societal expectations!

    I love the advice above to let go of your own productivity pressures and compare yourself to a mediocre make! So true!

  11. While I appreciate the gist of this article, I disagree that pumping is 100% optional. Many babies have issues with formula and families are currently having a lot of difficulty finding a choice of formula at local stores. Formula is also very expensive so that must also be factored in. Maybe in a different time and place, but if I dropped pumping all together, then I would have a very hard time meeting the nutritional needs of my baby.
    Since the Elvie pump was mentioned, I wanted to say that I did try the Elvie Stride this time around after using Medela, Spectra, and Ameda with my other three children. My goodness, what a total waste… they sent me a defective pump and would not replace it. Please don’t waste your money like I did!

    1. @Amy – thank you for bringing up the formula shortage. This situation is crazy — and dire — and needs a lot more attention than it is getting. So yes, there are some folks with young babies who will need to keep pumping for the next few months when they might have preferred not to.

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