Setting Up a Successful Lactation Practice at Work

By Dr. Paige Meltzer

Paige Meltzer is the founding director of the Women’s Center at Wake Forest University. You can learn more about the Women’s Center at womenscenter.wfu.edu. Follow the Women’s Center on Twitter @WFUwomenscenter or on Facebook.

Dr. Paige Meltzer head shot photo

Dr. Paige Meltzer

The decision to start and continue a lactation practice is complicated by a number of factors and no one but you knows the many considerations shaping your decision. If pumping after returning to work is something you want to try, then this post can help by offering some tips to support your workplace lactation practice.

I recommend checking out Work. Pump. Repeat.: The New Mom’s Survival Guide to Breastfeeding after Going Back to Work by WFU alumna Jessica Shortall (’00). Informed by hundreds of interviews with working women, workplace practices research, and state and national policy discussions, Work. Pump. Repeat. is a compassionate, funny, and pragmatic how-to for new parents starting a lactation practice and seeking to make a successful return to work. Shortall will teach you about different pumps, how to store up milk, and special considerations of the nursing mom’s wardrobe; she’ll also give you strategies for successfully navigating tricky terrain such as pumping on an airplane and responding to awkward comments from coworkers.

I especially appreciate that Shortall outlines how to set yourself up for success with your lactation practice and your organization. She stresses the importance of preparation, communication, creativity, and making sure your organization knows you’re a committed, productive employee. A few take-aways from Work. Pump. Repeat.:

  • Do your research — about your organization’s culture, other women’s experiences, and the players who are positioned to support you and your lactation practice, whether that’s your boss, a mentor, or HR (because every organization is different and you can find allies in unlikely places)
  • Draft a pumping plan — turn what you’ve learned from your research as well as what you know about the realities of your job and daily schedule into a pumping plan that is specific in its asks yet creative where it needs to be to support your lactation goals (details of what goes into a plan can be found in chapter 8)
  • Communicate — before you go out on leave, before you return, and even a few weeks after your return, communicate with your manager about your plan, identify and work through hiccups, and make adjustments as needed
  • Be a team player — tone, attitude, and engagement can position you for better outcomes (even if that means educating your employer about the business case for supporting lactation practices) so you can protect your pumping time, meet your lactation goals, and build a network of allies

Know that when it comes to pumping at work, parents do have some protection under the law. The Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare) amended Section 7 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). Employees covered under FLSA — that is, non-exempt workers — now have release from work duties for a reasonable amount of time to express breast milk and they must be provided a reasonably convenient private space other than a bathroom with a lock on the door to express breast milk. The amended law is a little vague about what constitutes “reasonable” and “convenient.” It does not require an organization to designate permanent lactation rooms or to pay employees during breaks, although you may use paid breaks to pump. Nevertheless, the amended law provides basic accommodations for mothers who previously struggled to find time and privacy to pump.

In the absence of organizational and public policies that support working parents — only 12% of private companies in the United States offer paid parental leave — it’s often on employees and organizations to cobble together individualized strategies for getting them through pregnancy, parental leave, and the return to work. It’s an ad hoc approach that provides neither clarity nor security for pregnant/postpartum employees, their teammates, or organizations. Women often feel like they’re alone, identifying anew each problem and potential solution on their own.

But here’s the thing: you are not alone. Women across the country are trying to figure out how to pump and store breast milk every day. They’re scheduling pumping around morning breaks, conference calls, and evening commutes. They’re cleaning bottles and pump parts at night when they’d rather cuddle with baby or read bedtime stories with their other kids. And they’re doing the countless other things — Laundry! Grocery shopping! Working from their couches at 9 pm! — because pumping is just one variable in the complicated equation that is the life of a working parent.

So seek out informal connections among women at work who have recently had a child. When a fellow parent says, “let me know if you need anything,” ask her if you can eat lunch together so you can learn more about her journey as a working mother. Inquire if your organization has an affinity group for parents, like the New Parents Group we hosted at the Women’s Center. Search Facebook for groups in your neighborhood or alumni network, call your local YMCA, or inquire with your faith community. Build up your support community. And be kind to yourself.

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