Returning to Work, and My Love-Hate Relationship With The Breast Pump
I went back to work seven weeks to the day after my daughter was born. I literally sat up from the examination table after my six-week visit and put on my scrubs. That first night back at work, I sat in a tiny supply room, hooked up to my double-automatic breast pump and cried, cried and cried. I missed my sweet baby and I worried that I wouldn’t be able to pump enough to provide her exclusively with my breast milk.
My husband and I had made the difficult decision that he would stay at-home with our baby full-time while I would work as a nurse.
I worried: Would I be able to provide her enough breast milk so that she wouldn’t need formula? Would I be able to maintain my milk supply while I was away from her? Would we be able to continue our breastfeeding relationship?
My gorgeous breast-fed baby
Engorgement aside, our early breastfeeding days felt easy and natural. We had a peaceful birth at home, Tucy went straight to my skin and breastfed right away. We stayed skin-to-skin for several hours each day for the first month of her life, and breastfed on demand.
Note: many mothers do not find this to be true. Nipple shape, baby’s latch and tongue- and lip-tie issues can seriously complicate the days of early breastfeeding, even for experienced breastfeeding mamas.
ENTER THE BREAST PUMP.
I love my boobs, but they are on the smaller side. For me, this never meant that I had trouble nourishing my baby, it just meant that I had to nurse her more often. In my non-lactation consultant opinion, I believe that my daughter nursed so often because my smaller boobs stored a smaller volume at any given time. They still produced enough milk for her — if you are drinking a liter of water either you drink it from one big bottle or from several small cups. But this made pumping every four hours to produce enough milk a struggle. So how did I cope?
Crying because she wants the boob.
Pump Religiously, Pump First
As a new nurse I was taught never to take a break until I was completely done with all my immediate tasks. As a working, breastfeeding mother I had to learn to do the best I could, then let non-emergent, unfinished tasks wait so that I could pump.
I was very, very grateful to work in a location where I was able to take regular breaks to pump. My supervisors and charge nurses were incredibly supportive of my need to pump. Still, working on Labor and Delivery (which is essentially like the ER and OR combined for pregnant ladies) things got very busy. Instead of asking when I could pump, I told my supervisor when I was going to pump.
You might be thinking, “If I do that, then my work-life is going to suffer.” Do you know the surprising thing I found?
Taking time to pump made me a better nurse. It taught me how to prioritize my tasks like never before, and manage my time far more efficiently.
As I logged HUNDREDS of hours pumping, I learned how to pump better.
- Before I pumped, I learned to start with massage and hand-expression to get the milk ready to flow. (Watch a video of hand-expression here.)
- As my letdown diminished, I used breast compression to help fully empty the breasts. (Watch a video of compression while pumping here.)
- I completed my pumping sessions with a “breast check” to make sure all parts of the breasts were fully emptied. If not, I would continue to massage, pump and hand-express until they were fully empty.
- I used mindfulness and meditation to help me relax during my pumping sessions to optimize my let-down and release of milk. For me that meant picturing my sweet baby skin-to-skin, nursing and smiling. I offered prayers of gratitude for the ability to make milk to nourish her and the ability to pump. I gave myself permission to really break free of the stress and anxiety of work by using my pumping time as a peaceful retreat.
BREASTFEED OFTEN AND ON-DEMAND WHILE WITH MY BABY
Working mamas need to understand better than anyone else that maintaining your milk supply will take extra effort. To be brutally honest, I have no idea how I could have maintained my milk supply without sleeping near my baby and nursing her on-demand (including throughout the night) for her first year and a half of life. For me, I’m certain that scheduled feedings would have meant the end of our exclusively-breastfeeding relationship.
Breastfeeding my daughter also taught me that PRODUCING BREAST MILK IS A DYNAMIC PROCESS. I learned that during a growth spurt, my daughter would pretty much breastfeed around the clock until she taught my breasts to produce more milk. Sure enough 24-48 hours later I would notice much fuller breasts and a very satisfied baby.
If I had been having a stressful week at work or felt my freezer milk stash was dwindling (it usually was), then Tucy and I would have a Breastfeeding Holiday. We stayed at home, stayed skin-to-skin, and focused fully on breastfeeding. No chores, errands or obligations were more important to me than our breastfeeding relationship.
REMEMBER THAT TIME CURES ALL
In the throes of it, it is hard to remember that my time spent pumping would ever end. But looking back, I only had to spend FOUR MONTHS pumping milk to satisfy all my baby’s caloric and nutritional needs. After that, my husband was able to feed her solids to help fill her tummy and stave off her need for extreme volumes (18 ounces in 12 hours? Are you kidding me??!?) of breast milk while I was gone. Rather than giving her any bottles, I exclusively breastfed while we were together.
Around 10 1/2 or 11 months we realized that Tucy was sucking down a bottle in the evening while I was at work. Instead of breast milk for that bottle, we experimented with coconut milk. She was eating coconut at other times, right? It worked … she would drink three ounces of coconut milk instead of breast milk per shift and I would be able to save 3 ounces of breast milk for later.
Around 14 months old, Tucy was drinking whole milk out of a cup and tolerating it well. After about 11 1/2 months of pumping, I was able to stop pumping at work for volume, and only to relieve discomfort. HALLELUJAH! I still look back at year 1-2 as my very favorite time of breastfeeding … with my older baby it was such a bonding experience and I no longer had to stress about milk supply.
Mama at work means that daddy and baby bond
LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE
It was very, very stressful for me to be away from my baby. Since I am a worrier, I worried and worried and worried about our decision for me to work while my husband stayed at home with her. Looking back, I know it was the best decision for our family.
Pumping was a bitch. (Sorry, there’s no other way to describe it.) But pumping meant that I could continue to breastfeed as long as my baby and I needed and wanted to, while still working to provide for our family. That choice and commitment took a great deal of courage and determination, and I am proud of myself, my husband and our baby for making it happen.
Today my husband and daughter are absolutely two peas in a pod. He understands our girl in many ways better than I do. Those hours he spent nurturing her while I was at work deepened their bond in a way I could never have predicted. Their love for each other is a gift that they will cherish throughout their lives.
HANG IN THERE, MAMAS. You can do this! It’s hard, but possible.