Pumping at Work: Rights, Tips, Schedules & A How-To Guide

Last Updated On: 

January 6, 2019

Getting ready to go back to work can be daunting for new moms. After all, breastfeeding and making milk is hard enough work on its own while you’re home with your baby. Being away all day can take a toll on your milk supply and your stress levels.

However, there are ways to make the experience both easier and more rewarding—both in terms of your comfort levels and how much milk you’re able to produce.

The following guide that we’ve put together about pumping at work will help prepare you for returning to work and making all the milk you need on the job.

Anyone ever told you it’s impossible before? They’re wrong! Know that it can be done, and we’re here to show you how!

Pumping at Work: What You Should Know

Even if you have expressed milk a few times before while at home with your baby, and even if you feel you’re already a pro at it, it’s important to recognize the difference between pumping at home and pumping at work.

First things first, there are laws and rules surrounding women’s rights to pump at work, but it’s also a different experience altogether because you’re on a time crunch with outside pressures and demands.

The following few sections will discuss some of the most important issues you should know about before going in for your first day back.

Pumping Employee Rights in the Workplace

First off, you should know this: all fifty states in the United States have laws surrounding a mother’s right to pump at work. However, different locations and even different companies can interpret the law differently.

Also, some states may have other laws working in accordance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which makes rules at the federal level.

What the Law Says About Pumping at Work

The law specifically says that employers must provide “reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for 1 year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”

However, companies with fewer than 50 employees – and for whom it would present an “undue hardship” to accommodate nursing moms – don’t have to allow pumping breaks.

For many moms, this can be a deal breaker when it comes to pumping at work. With smaller companies, it simply isn’t required by law for them to work with you.

In such cases, if your employer happens to be an an awesome human being who willingly goes out of their way to keep you happy, that’s great! However, know that they aren’t required by law to do so (at the time of this writing) if they’re running a smaller company.

Additionally, if a mom is employed with a larger company which must comply with the law, there are still variations in how organizations interpret the law. For example, a “reasonable break time” may be 10 minutes in some scenarios, while other companies may offer up to 30 minutes for moms to pump.

How State Laws Impact the Federal Law

Some states have additional laws which the Affordable Care Act does not cancel out. Therefore, some moms may receive compensation for their pumping breaks—though this isn’t a requirement based on the law.

It’s also not required for companies to give moms pumping breaks after their baby’s first birthday, but some states (and companies) may work with employees after this time, too.

Above all, some companies really care about their employees being able to provide milk to their babies because a healthy baby means a mom who misses less work! Those companies may offer additional benefits to nursing moms, too.

Pumping Mom Obligations at Work

While many employers are either required to – or willingly – provide for pumping moms to keep making milk on the clock, moms have obligations too.

From meeting your company’s productivity requirements to documenting break times, here are a few common obligations pumping moms face at work.

Documenting Break Times

Many employers choose not to compensate moms for their federally-required pumping breaks. They may also set time limits for your breaks, as well as let you know how frequently you can pump.

It’s typically the mom’s responsibility to document her pumping breaks and file any necessary paperwork.

Because many workplaces don’t pay moms for these breaks (and they don’t have to), you may need to turn in additional time sheets or forms to make sure your pay is correct. It wouldn’t be fun to owe your company for those hours due to skipping paperwork!

Informing Co-Workers of Scheduling

While in an ideal world, pumping moms wouldn’t have to share with their coworkers about their milk expression needs, we’re not quite there yet. Part of your obligations as a pumping mom at work include letting your team know when you’ll be away and when you need coverage.

If you work in an office, you might be able to schedule your day around your team members’ needs. But if, for example, you work in customer service, it might be more difficult to get away for your scheduled pump breaks.

If your coworkers know what your needs and schedules are, it’s easier to keep things moving smoothly both regarding the business functions and your milk-making ones.

Remaining Productive

Although there are many laws surrounding women’s rights, especially when it comes to mothering duties, your company always has the final say as to whether you’re performing well or not. Therefore, it’s essential to maintain your productivity even when you’re spending lots of time pumping.

Because other employees only have their regular breaks, not additional pumping breaks, your boss might start to compare your work to theirs.

Make sure you’re not leaving things undone or letting work stack up, as the law doesn’t protect you against getting fired for not keeping up with your job duties.

Protecting Yourself

Unfortunately, even with the laws in place to safeguard pumping moms’ rights, it’s crucial for you to know and understand them. This way, you’ll be prepared if you have to present your case to your company or even just your department supervisor.

There are plenty of resources available for you to share with your employer, from nursing mother fact sheets via the U.S. Department of Labor to the Wage and Hour Division’s direct quotes from Section 7 of the Affordable Care Act.

With these resources, you can share the law with anyone who needs a reminder of what your rights are, as well as what the responsibility is of the company.

Setting Up a Pumping Space at Work

If your company offers a lactation room for nursing moms, you’re a lucky employee!

Other moms aren’t so lucky, especially with smaller companies which may not have the resources to set aside an office for lactating moms.

However, there are laws surrounding pumping spaces, and there are ways to make expressing milk comfortable and accessible no matter where you work.

What the Law Says on Pumping Spaces at Work

Accommodations for pumping spaces at work can range from a private office to a converted closet—but what are the legal requirements for the area?

According to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, which covers moms’ rights to pump at work, employers must provide nursing moms with “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.”

Of course, many companies suggest nursing moms use the restroom to express milk, but according to the law, they are not allowed to do so.

It might be uncomfortable for you to resort to this, but to avoid pumping in a bathroom stall, you may need to pull out your copy of the Affordable Care Act to ensure you get proper accommodations.

Types of Pumping Spaces at Work

Although the law states companies must provide a private room for employees to pump in, the provision leaves a lot to interpretation.

For employees who have their own offices, it’s typically as simple as closing and locking the door to take a pump break.

For employees who work outside an office, the job site may not offer much in the way of private rooms. Many moms wind up using storage closets or empty conference rooms for pumping, which is fine as long as they’re private and include an outlet for moms who use electric pumps.

However, many larger businesses—or those who pride themselves on being more family-friendly—tend to set aside special rooms for lactation. These rooms often include comfortable chairs, a mini refrigerator for storing milk, lockers for moms, and even a sink and counter space for cleaning pump parts.

Alternative Spaces to Pump at Work

Although employees who work at a single job site frequently have access to facilities for pumping, those who travel may not be so lucky.

If you work at a variety of job sites or often travel to attend meetings, you might not be able to wait to pump until you’ve reached a designated place.

For some moms, pumping while driving becomes a necessity rather than just an option. Of course, this requires a double electric pump for both safety and convenience.

For other lactating moms, using a discreet pump which fits under their clothing may be a more realistic option, since sometimes you simply can’t find a private place to set up your pump.

In many instances, though, moms who need an outlet for their electric pumps have to find a room to use wherever they are. Some creative spots to pump can include:

  • A utility/storage closet
  • An empty conference room
  • A hotel room (for women attending conventions or other events)
  • A partitioned-off space in a larger room

Tips for Pumping at Work

Apart from finding a decent (and sanitary) space to pump and following the law, what else does a nursing mother need to know while pumping at work? Here are some helpful tips!

Always Bring Backups

Whether you use a manual or electric pump, keeping spare parts on hand can make the difference between making enough milk and potentially falling short.

Also, a broken or incorrectly assembled pump can lead to a nursing mom developing an infection if she doesn’t get the milk out.

Consider keeping some spare parts in a container at work if you can, as well as extra bottles or breast milk storage bags just in case. Then you’ll never have to worry about forgetting items at home.

Carry a Cover

If you’re unsure about where you’ll need to pump—and when—carry a nursing cover with you to make things easier.

Even if you wind up pumping in your car or in a semi-shared space (or just somewhere you think someone may walk in), you’ll still have adequate covering.

Plenty of moms don’t care about hiding while pumping, but many other moms feel the need to be discreet. However you feel, it always helps to prepare for any scenario.

Bring Photos of Baby

For lots of moms returning to work for the first time after having a baby, it can be emotionally and physically difficult to make milk.

For that reason, keeping a photograph of your baby with your pumping gear can help you relax and think productive thoughts!

These days, you can also set up a slideshow on your phone to watch while you pump so you can think about your sweet baby and de-stress.

Stick to a Schedule

Sometimes it’s impossible to stick with a schedule, especially if your work environment is variable from day to day.

However, it’s a necessity. For most women, sticking to a predictable pumping schedule helps maximize your milk output and make it easier to plan. It’s also more likely you will keep up with pumping if you know when you need to step out to express milk.

Confide in Coworkers

Depending on your work environment, whether you’re on an otherwise all-male team or you have people in your department who aren’t parents, it could be difficult to broach the subject of milk expression – but it’s vital for your coworkers to understand when and why you need to step out.

Plus, stressing out about what people think or whether someone will walk in unexpectedly while you’re pumping in your office can negatively impact your milk supply.

It’s easier overall to pump at work if you have not only your partner’s support at home, but also your coworkers’ support while on the job.

Learn to Hand-Express

Hand-expressing breastmilk is a skill every nursing mom should pick up! Not only can it help to relieve engorgement and work out clogs, but hand-expressing milk can also save your supply in a pumping pinch.

If your electric pump dies or you forget a part for your manual pump, you can still express milk into a cup or other container and save it for your baby.

Plus, hand-expressing your milk can be even more effective than using a pump once you’ve had some practice.

What Gear Do I Need for Pumping at Work?

With all the products out there available for nursing moms, you could tote multiple bags to work per day stuffed with helpful pumping accessories. But, there are some which you could do without – simply because they aren’t worth the hype.

Here, we’ll look at what gear you need to pump at work successfully, and which items you should leave out of your shopping cart.

Apart from the pump itself and your milk-makers, what do you really need to pump at work? Here’s the short list of items which are necessities.

Power Sources

If you use a manual pump, you’ll never have to worry about running out of “juice” while pumping at work.

If you haven’t ever used a manual pump before, learning to use one and keeping it available is a smart idea, especially if you work far from home and can’t run out for replacement parts as necessary.

But if your go-to pump is an electric model, keeping extra batteries on hand is smart as well.

If your pump is rechargeable, always bring your charger (or keep a spare at work) so you don’t risk losing power. Similarly, having a car charger or adapter on hand is also a smart idea, depending on where and how you work.

Milk Storage Supplies

Some mamas like to pump directly into storage bottles, while others prefer to transfer milk to disposable storage bags. Whatever your preference, you will need a supply of milk storage equipment to make pumping at work more manageable.

Keep in mind if you’re using bottles to pump directly into, you’ll also need caps for those bottles, as well as enough bottles for every pumping session you plan to have throughout the workday.

With storage bags, keeping a box or a handful with your work bag is always a smart idea.

Items for Cleanup

However and wherever you pump, occasional spills are inevitable. For this reason, many nursing moms swear by carrying baby burp cloths (or similarly constructed pre-fold cloth diapers) to sop up spilled milk.

You may even want to lay a burp cloth, towel, or even a receiving blanket across your lap while pumping. This protects your clothing from spills and also ensures you have something to wipe with if necessary.

Pump Lubricant

Many moms swear by using a lubricant before pumping, and we have to agree this is a smart idea.

After all, pumping frequently, and especially at high suction settings, can cause breast pain and even tissue damage over time. But even regular, safe pumping at healthy levels can cause moms to develop blisters or chafing.

Using a baby-safe food-grade lubricant such as coconut oil, olive oil or lanolin before pumping will help moisten the nipple area before the milk starts flowing. It can also help prevent damage from dry skin rubbing against the flanges.

Sanitizing Equipment

While most nursing moms don’t have time to scrub and sanitize their pump parts at work, you’ll need cleaning equipment if you don’t have multiple sets of flanges and other components.

Many moms prefer to carry a small bottle of dish soap and a bottle brush to use for cleaning, but some also carry microwave sanitizer bags to be doubly sure everything is clean.

An alternative to sanitizing your pump parts after each pumping session is to store the pieces in the fridge in an airtight container or zipper bag. This keeps the milk inside fresh, eliminating the need to rinse or wash it out.

This “trick” is especially helpful for moms who use manual pumps, as you can pump the whole thing in a gallon-size bag and refrigerate it.

Which Accessories Are Helpful, But Not Necessary?

Now that we’ve gone over all the necessities you definitely need, here are a few more accessories for pumping which may make the experience easier for you.

They’re not requirements, but they may help your workday go a little more smoothly!

A Backup Pump

Whether you’re using a handheld manual pump or a single or double electric model, ensuring you have a backup is always a good idea.

Whether it’s a forgotten part or a mechanical failure happens, having your pump die on you mid-pumping session is stressful. Not only does this mess with your work schedule, but it can also force you to lose precious ounces of milk as you physically can’t pump.

Nursing Pads

Many moms don’t need nursing pads, especially once their milk supply is established. For other moms, these are a must-have as they prevent milk from leaking through your bra and shirt.

Whichever camp you fall into, using nursing pads while pumping at work can help you feel less self-conscious when returning to your workstation after a break.

Nursing pads can help make your nipples less visible post-pumping session, which can go a long way in making lactating moms feel more “normal.”

A Nursing Cover

While we hope your employer has a private space for you to pump in while at work, many moms are nervous about people seeing them attached to a pump.

Therefore, we suggest carrying a nursing cover as a means of maintaining privacy in those types of situations.

Plus, if you wind up needing to pump in your car, you don’t have to announce it to the whole world either!

Which Pumping Gear Can I Be Fine Without?

Once you have all the necessities ready, you’re prepared to pump at work!

Of course, there are some other products for lactating moms which aren’t wholly necessary for pumping, but which many sources will claim you need.

Here’s a list of items you don’t necessarily need to be successful at pumping on the job, even though there’s nothing wrong with having them on hand if that makes you more comfortable.

Battery-Powered Portable Pumps

Although their advertisements suggest you can multi-task and do almost anything while pumping, this doesn’t mean a battery-powered portable pump is an answer to all your lactation needs.

Sure, it’s nice to have a smaller pump for space purposes, but the fact remains that most handheld pumps are less efficient than larger or hospital-grade picks.

Plus, although you may have the best intentions about multitasking while pumping, it’s better if you concentrate on making milk while on your pump breaks instead of trying to get everything else done simultaneously.

Many lactation specialists recommend massaging your breasts while pumping to enhance milk flow, something you can’t do if you’re shuffling paperwork at the same time!

A Special Pumping Bra

Although it’s nice to have a bra specially made for pumping, these types of bras tend to have cutouts over your nipples. With this feature, you wouldn’t want to wear your pumping bra for the rest of the workday!

One of the easiest tricks for making any pump hands-free is to use hair ties to secure the pump flange to your bra. This works with any standard nursing bra and frees up your hands to massage the milk out or do whatever else you need to do while pumping.

There are also kits which include straps to hold your pump regardless of what type of bra you’re wearing, and those can be a good—even if pricier—investment, too.

Gel Hot/Cold Pads

Although heat can do wonders for sore and engorged breasts, pumping at work is difficult enough without trying to manage crescent-shaped and gel-filled pads over the top of the flanges.

Saving those measures for when you’re at home can help with relieving pain and promoting milk production – but at work on a time crunch, they’re just a hassle.

A Special Pump Bag

It’s great if your pump comes with a cute and functional bag for storage, but you don’t necessarily have to buy one for work.

You also don’t necessarily need a special storage bag for keeping milk cold—a regular lunch box will often work for taking milk home from work for your baby.

How to Pump at Work

From deciding how often to pump to managing coworkers’ expectations, there’s a lot to know about how to pump at work.

Here’s our comprehensive guide to getting the milk made while on the job.

Pumping Schedule for Work

Since most moms have at least a bit of a commute to work, the average nursing mom can expect to be away from her baby for nearly ten hours each weekday.

Most lactation consultants suggest for nursing moms to pump at least three times in ten hours, mimicking how often the nursing baby would need to eat (every three hours).

Here’s a helpful guideline for creating a pumping schedule for work!

Pumping Schedule Guidelines

In general, you should aim to go no longer than four hours between pumping sessions, even if your baby eats less frequently at home. This way, you’re promoting your milk supply as much as possible while away from your baby, ensuring a healthy milk supply for when you’re at home, too.

While it can be challenging to manage a pumping session right after you arrive at work, sometimes it will be necessary, especially if you have a long commute. Since pumping during the commute isn’t an option for all moms, you may want to try to get in to work a little early to make sure you can pump before starting your day.

Just remember to space your last pumping session far enough away from your baby’s next feeding so there is enough milk for him or her to have a full meal. Most experts suggest not pumping at least an hour before feeding your baby to make sure your body has time to make more.

Pumping (And Nursing) Before Work

Whenever possible, aim to nurse your baby directly before leaving for work.

If your baby sleeps late or has a different schedule for days you’re off at work, try to pump right before leaving, or even during your commute if possible.

Sample Pumping Schedule 1

For a workday which lasts from 8 AM to 4 PM, here is a suggested pumping schedule:

  • Feed/pump before leaving for work at 7 AM
  • Morning pump at 10 AM
  • Pump at lunchtime (around 12 PM to 1 PM)
  • Afternoon pump at 3 PM
  • Feed/pump upon arriving home at 5 PM

Sample Pumping Schedule 2

For the same workday hours (8 AM to 4 PM), here’s a modified schedule with an earlier feeding/pumping session:

  • Feed/pump when the baby gets up at 6 AM
  • Morning pump at work at 8 AM
  • Lunchtime pump at 12 PM
  • Afternoon pump at 2 PM
  • Feed upon arriving home at 5 PM

Strategies for Pumping on the Clock

When you’re pumping at home, it’s typical to have interruptions like needing to tend to the baby or having to get up to answer the door. But at work, there’s often a stricter time frame for lactating women to get in their pumping time.

This means you need to have everything as streamlined as possible for quick and effective pumping.

So, here are our strategies for faster and easier pumping sessions.

Stage Your Equipment Ahead of Time

Whether your pump is a manual handheld one or a double electric or anything in between, assembling the parts before work can make your pump break go more smoothly. And, if you gather the parts before leaving the house in the morning, this reduces the chances you’ll forget a part.

Once you leave for a pump break, you can pull the flange assembly out and start pumping immediately, no assembly required. This makes for a faster and less frustrating pumping time.

Keep a Routine

Keeping a routine as far as timing and spacing of pump sessions is crucial, but so is having a set method for starting the milk flowing.

Most pumps have a built-in letdown setting (whether manual or electric) to mimic your baby’s suckling at the start of a nursing session. This is a light and fast suction setting to encourage your milk ejection reflex.

Using this setting helps get the milk started, and then you can switch to a deeper suction setting which draws the milk out effectively.

Even if your milk flows with little prompting, using the same routine each time can help your body adapt to the new schedule and respond more quickly at the start of your pumping session.

Save the Cleanup for Later

If your pump break is limited to 20 minutes but you know you’ll need to spend five minutes washing the parts, you’ll be racing against the clock to finish in time.

If you save the cleanup for later, though, you can pump all the way until the end of the break time.

Here is where having extra parts comes in handy: you can throw the dirty parts into a bag or container, put the milk in the fridge, and be back at work ASAP.

Space Your Sessions

Although it’s not always possible to plan your pumping schedule exactly, it’s a good idea to stick to the same time and pumping session length each day. It’s also helpful to pump as close to the start of your workday as possible so you can work for a long stretch before requiring a break.

For example, if your workday starts at 8 AM, pumping at 7 AM during your commute is better than pumping at 6 AM before you leave the house. At the same time, if your day ends at 5 PM, pumping at 3 or 4 PM is ideal if you know you’ll be picking up a potentially hungry nursing baby directly after work.

Also, adding extra pumping sessions, no matter what time they occur, is always better than skipping one entirely. Similarly, having a short pumping session is better than having none at all, although it’s better to “make up” the time later if possible.

Communicating with Co-Workers Re: Pumping

One of the most intimidating parts of pumping at work is dealing with coworkers’ expectations and questions.

Even if your team is reluctant to talk to you about pumping because of the sensitive nature of the subject, it’s necessary for keeping everyone productive and cohesive!

Here is our advice for handling sticky situations—and avoiding them—while pumping at work.

Keep Everyone in the Know

It might be awkward to tell people—especially your subordinates—when you need to step out for a pumping break.

For this reason, it can be helpful to keep everyone “in the know” when you return from maternity leave. If possible, try to send a return email to your team outlining what your scheduling needs are and what they can expect.

An email which notes you will be “away from my desk for lactation breaks at [specific times] each day” should suffice. And, the beauty of a vague explanation via email is recipients can figure out on their own what lactation means if they don’t already know!

Have Signage Ready

While you don’t have to advertise to the world when you’re on a pumping break, it can be helpful to place a sign on the door of whatever room you’re using to express milk in.

Something as simple as “please do not disturb” is usually enough – but if you’re feeling cheeky (or have an understanding team you’re comfortable with), you could also say something like “milk-making in progress.”

Some moms even use a photo of a cow to get the point across. A little bit of fun never hurt anyone, right?

Plan for Lunches In

Even if your company often takes lunch as a group, you may have to respectfully excuse yourself once you begin pumping.

Even if your company allows for additional breaks for you to pump outside of lunchtime, this may simply not work with your schedule. It may also cause coworkers to become uncomfortable or even jealous, as they may wonder when you’re finding the time to get work done.

To avoid these sticky types of situations, you may want to work your pumping break into your lunch schedule, so you do not appear to take “extra” time out of your day to pump.

Highlight Productivity

While many coworkers will be understanding and helpful when they know you have to pump, others may act like you’re not doing anything extraordinary. And, although all moms are extraordinary, sometimes we have to show our coworkers how true it is!

You shouldn’t expect to do extra work to prove yourself postpartum, but making sure to show your team how crucial you are to the organization’s success can help them be accepting of your need for milk expression breaks a bit better (not that you need anyone’s acceptance to begin with).

While the law protects you regarding timing and space for pumping, it doesn’t help shape coworkers’ perceptions!

And there’s also nothing wrong with keeping your pumping breaks a secret from staff, especially if you have your own office and can manage your schedule accordingly. In such cases, you can afford to remain low-key if that’s what you want.

Be Prepared for Problems

Hopefully, you won’t encounter any issue when returning to work and pumping. But, knowing your rights, as well as knowing where to find legal assistance, can help you feel more comfortable with standing up for yourself.

In general, though, being open and honest with your coworkers can go a long way toward reaching your goals for both work performance and pumping convenience.

Wrapping it Up

Although even the most basic forms of nursing is hard work, pumping at work has even more challenges ready to throw your way.

From knowing what to pack in your pumping bag to knowing how to schedule your legally compliant pumping breaks, there’s so much work going into making milk for your baby.

But, at the same time, there’s nothing more rewarding than coming home after a productive day on the job to feed your baby the milk you’ve so lovingly pumped!

Fortunately, you don’t have to worry about maintaining both your career and your milk supply with these helpful tips and scheduling strategies!

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