How to Pump for Going Back to Work (and Increase Your Supply, Too!)

By Kasey Erin Phifer-Byrne

Related: See How to Set Up a Pumping Room at Work

Ah, the return to work. It's scary, it's daunting, it's emotional, and it may even be a little bit exciting (adult conversation? All day long?!). And it can seem a little complicated when you're breastfeeding, but it doesn't have to be. If you're planning to return to work some time soon and are thinking about how you'll manage your milk supply while you're at it, you're in the right place. Let's talk about questions and worries surrounding pumping for baby while you're working.

For now, I'm going to assume you've already talked to your boss about pumping breaks during your workday. For this post, we're going to focus more on your milk supply and your feeding relationship with baby.

"Don't I need a lot of milk stashed away before I go back to work?"

Nope! Remember that if you're going to be pumping while you're away from baby (aim to pump the same number of times you would normally feed your baby during the hours you'll be apart), you'll be providing milk that way. So you really only need 1-2 days of milk already-pumped before you go back to work, plus maybe a few extra bottles just as a buffer. If you're worried about your supply dipping and feel the need to stockpile just in case, we'll talk about that next.

"Will my supply dip when I go back to work?"

Well, it depends. You should know that babies are generally more effective at drawing out milk than pumps are, everyone responds to the breast pump differently, and pumps vary in quality and effectiveness. If you already know that your body responds well to the pump and you've used it before, you probably don't need to worry about your supply dropping drastically when you go back to work. The first few days can be stressful, and you may notice that it takes a bit of time to get into a pumping routine that works for you (we'll talk about this), but remember those few extra buffer bottles? That's what those are for.

If you know you don't tend to respond to your pump as well, you may need to make some adjustments to your pump or pumping routine to keep your supply where it needs to be. Make sure your pump flanges fit correctly and that your pump is set to the strongest comfortable setting (talk to a lactation consultant if you need specific help). We'll go over creating a pumping routine and increasing your supply if you need to.

You might notice that when you return to baby at the end of your workday, you spend more time feeding in the evening and night than you're used to. Your baby is likely just making up for lost time and ramping up your supply to keep it where he or she needs it to be. Babies' instincts are smart! And don't be surprised if your caregiver reports that the babe didn't take all of the milk you expected them to. Some babies will eat less during the day if they know they'll get mama back in the evening, and they'll get their fill with extra nursing sessions when you're together.

"How do I figure out a pumping routine that works for me?"

Once you know where and when you'll be pumping throughout the day (talk to your boss!), consider how you'll create a few relaxing moments to get that liquid gold flowing. Stress and tension can have a dramatic affect on the effectiveness of pumping—you may have heard that oxytocin, that magical love hormone that causes labor contractions, gives you that gooey feeling when you look at your baby, and even releases during sex, is necessary for milk ejection. Guess what? Oxytocin doesn't like tension. Avoid scheduling a pumping session immediately before or after a stressful meeting, try to make your pumping space as relaxing as possible, and start out with a good stretch and a few deep breaths. Some mamas find it helpful to look through pictures of their baby or to listen to relaxing music or nature sounds while pumping. A tip, though? Don't watch the bottles! A watched breast pump bottle never fills. Well, it might fill, but watching the bottle is a sure way to get yourself stressing over your supply, which won't do any favors for your let-down.

Also know that you don't need to wash your pump parts after every single pumping session. If you don't have access to a refrigerator for your pumped milk and you're using a cooler with ice packs instead, stick your unwashed pump parts in there (or in the fridge) in between pumping sessions and just wash them well when you get home at the end of the day.

"How do I increase my supply if it dips, or if it is too low before I go back to work?"

There are several things you can try to bring your milk supply up. First of all, a lactation consultant is the perfect person to talk to if you're having supply issues, so I always recommend a visit to a local IBCLC.

That said, my own first recommendation is usually to try simple dietary changes to boost your supply. Oatmeal for breakfast each morning is a great way to raise your milk supply, and for many mamas, this kind of change is all that's needed. You can also find recipes online for lactation cookies, lactation muffins, and other treats made with ingredients that are known galactagogues, which means they can increase breast milk production. The most common ingredients are oats, brewer's yeast, and ground flaxseed.

If you're already doing those things, or you want to try something non-dietary, "power pumping" is one way to signal to your body that you need it to produce more milk. You can power pump as often as once a day, but many moms find that just one session on the weekend helps them provide the extra milk they need during the week. A power pumping session lasts an hour: spend ten minutes pumping, and ten minutes resting, and repeat that cycle for the full hour. It's a little like cluster feeding, but with your breast pump.

Many moms also have luck with supplements and teas designed to increase milk supply.

Disclaimer: I am not a doctor of any kind, nor am I an IBCLC. Always talk to your caregiver about any supplement you want to take—don't just take the word of someone on the internet!

Do some of your own research about teas and supplements such as Traditional Medicinals Mother's Milk, Motherlove More Milk Plus, GoLacta, and moringa, and then ask your doctor or a lactation consultant if they might be right for you.

As always, my top recommendation for anyone wanting more information about increasing milk supply, including supplements, dietary changes, and power pumping, is to check out KellyMom, an evidence-based breastfeeding website run by an IBCLC. KellyMom is full of fantastic information about breastfeeding, minus the misinformation that's rampant on the rest of the net.

Managing Emotions

Before we wrap up, let's talk about emotions, breastfeeding, and returning to work. It's common to feel sad or nervous about this change in your breastfeeding relationship with your baby. You may have spent time getting your baby used to a bottle, worrying about nipple confusion, and explaining your baby's feeding habits to caregivers. You'll probably notice a few changes in those feeding habits when you go back to work, but know that this is normal. He or she is adjusting, and so are you. The breastfeeding relationship is one that grows and changes with the seasons of babyhood.

Best of luck, mama! We'll send you off with a smile.

Kasey Phifer-Byrne is an English professor, poetry-writer, lactation consultant in training, and mom to one cat and one soon-to-be-born human. She teaches from home while balancing clinical hours for lactation support, preparing for new parenthood, and enjoying a good hike near her home outside of Philadelphia. Kasey is passionate about supporting breastfeeding mamas and advocating for family leave and work-life balance despite today's challenges to working parents.