Returning to Paid Employment

Return to work
In Canada, most people are eligible to receive 12 to 18 months of paid maternity leave. This is a time for you to recover both physically and emotionally from the birth. It also provides you with months, instead of weeks, to establish the breastfeeding relationship, and adjust to life with a baby.

When your parental leave ends and you return to work, you may think you’ll have to wean. Absolutely not. Many mothers return to work when their babies are young. They hand express or pump their milk while at work and nurse when home. Many continue nursing into toddlerhood. See Breast Pumps vs. Hand Expression for more information.

If you return to work before your baby is one year old, you will likely need to pump to keep up your milk production and to prevent mastitis. You’ll want to express milk as often as your baby feeds while you are home. This is usually every 2 to 3 hours with a young baby. Once your baby is eating family foods, you may be able to pump less often. When not working, breastfeed as often as your baby wants. This will also help with milk production. If your baby is having a growth spurt, you will probably need to add an extra pumping or two for a few days. See Growth Spurts and Frequent-Feeding Days for more information.

If you are returning to work and plan to continue breastfeeding, here are some tips to make this transition easier for you and your little one:

Do Nothing
If you aren’t returning to work until the 12-18 month mark, your body will have a well-established milk supply. It can accommodate longer stretches of time without feeding, pumping, or expressing. You can continue to breastfeed when you and your baby are together. This is usually in the morning, evenings, during the night and on your days off! As your body adjusts to being away from your baby, you may need to express milk if you become overly full. Have a conversation with your employer about taking short breaks to hand express or pump for comfort.

Know your rights
Many provinces and territories in Canada protect the breastfeeding rights of parents in their provincial Human Rights Legislation. You can familiarize yourself with your legal rights as a breastfeeding parent in your province or territory prior to returning to work. Below is a list of provincial and territorial Human Rights agencies.

Some rights in your provincial or territorial legislation that protect you as a breastfeeding parent may include:

  • flexible work hours to accommodate breastfeeding and pumping times.
  • allowing breastfeeding parents to nurse during work visits. longer, or extra, breaks to allow for hand expressing, pumping or breastfeeding.
  • a clean, private place to breastfeed or express milk.
  • a place to keep your milk cool (fridge or cooler bag with ice packs).
  • allowing for a parental leave extension; especially if accommodations cannot be met.

Depending on where you work and the nature of your workplace, you may not be able to breastfeed your baby at work. In these cases, your employer may be required to allow you breaks to hand express or pump. These breaks may have to meet certain criteria. Please refer to your provincial or territorial legislation for specific details around what this might look like.

Have a conversation with your employer prior to your return
You may have concerns about returning to work while breastfeeding because you are unsure how your employer will respond. Prior to returning to work, reach out to your employer. Discuss breastfeeding accommodations and what they might look like. It is helpful to be familiar with your rights as a breastfeeding parent prior to this conversation.

Some things to discuss would be:

  • breastfeeding at work, if someone brings your baby to you.
  • expressing your milk at work.
  • how often you will need breastfeeding or pumping breaks.
  • where you can go for these breaks.
  • if an electrical outlet will be available. how long you may need to pump or breastfeed.
  • where you can store your milk.
  • if a sink will be available to clean pump parts.
  • the possibility of a flexible work schedule, such as:
    -a gradual return to work with part time hours for a couple of weeks before returning full time.
    -part-time/full time work from home.
    -delayed start in the morning.
    -split shifts.

If you are uncomfortable reaching out to your supervisor for this conversation, talk with your human resources (HR) representative. This person should be familiar with your breastfeeding rights as an employee. Your HR representative would also be the next step if your supervisor is not willing to accommodate your requests.

Get familiar with your pump and/or hand expression

  • Practice using your pump while at home. Learn about its settings.
  • Make sure the pump flanges are the correct size for you. A poorly fitting flange can be painful and lower milk production.
  • Estimate the amount of time you’ll need at work to express your milk. Consider more than the actual pumping time. Include the time it takes you to get settled, attach the pump, transfer your milk into the proper storage container, clean the pump, and get back to work. For example, it may only take you 15 minutes to pump but with getting set up, transferring and cleaning, it may take 25 minutes. Some mothers choose to purchase a pump that can fit into a bra. These pumps can be used while doing other tasks such as eating lunch, working at a computer, or commuting.
  • Express some milk before returning to work. This will give you a ready supply for the first week. Usually, you’ll pump one day, and leave that milk for your baby the next day. However, if you miss pumping one day at work, you’ll have extra milk in the freezer.
  • Familiarize yourself with hand expression and practice while at home. Then you will be comfortable with this skill before returning to work. Even if you are using a pump, there may be times you’ll need to hand express some milk.

For best practices in human milk storage, see Storing Human Milk. To store your milk safely while at work, you can use the bottles that came with your pump or purchase additional bottles with sealed lids. You could also use glass containers with sealed lids or human milk storage bags. You will want to know if you will have access to a refrigerator for your expressed milk. If not, have an insulated cooler/lunch bag and some ice packs to keep your milk cool for the rest of your shift and your commute home. If you will have access to a refrigerator, keep your milk in a small basket or insulated lunch bag in the fridge.

Pack snacks and hydrate
As you may already know, breastfeeding often increases hunger and thirst. Consider putting some additional snacks and a bottle of water in your pumping bag so you can recharge and hydrate while hand expressing or pumping.

Set the scene
Breastfeeding, hand expressing and pumping work best when you are comfortable. You may not be as comfortable at work as you are at home. This is especially true in the first few weeks back at work.

  • Consider bringing some things with you that might help, such as a pillow, blanket, or book.
  • You could download music, podcasts, or tv shows onto your phone or tablet. It can be relaxing to listen to these while pumping.
  • It might also be helpful to look at photos of your baby or smell an item of your baby’s clothing to help get the oxytocin flowing. Oxytocin helps your milk “letdown” or flow.

If you notice that you can’t quite get comfortable pumping at work, have a chat with your supervisor to see if you can make some changes.

If you will be pumping at work, you will need to bring several items with you each day:

  • the pump.
  • spare pump parts.
  • milk storage options.
  • extra clothing.
  • comfort items.

This can be a lot to remember and hard to gather in the morning before work. Consider packing everything the night before. Have it ready to go in a bag by your door. Create a checklist of all the items you might need so you can refer to it.

Be patient with yourself
Returning to work can be both an emotionally and physically tiring time for you. Allow yourself and your baby the time to settle into a new routine. Troubleshoot challenges with patience. Seek out support from other breastfeeding working parents. It might not be “perfect” at first. You may feel defeated, but that’s okay! Allow yourself to feel those feelings and know that, soon, you’ll have the hang of it. Remember that La Leche League (LLL) Leaders are available to support you throughout this transition in your life.

Seek Support
Many parents have gone back to work and maintained their breastfeeding relationship for months or years. Attending LLL meetings during your maternity leave can help you prepare for this transition. The other attendees at the meetings can let you know what worked for them and what didn’t. They can also give you the emotional support you need while you figure out unexpected challenges. La Leche League Canada is here to support you!