Navigating Your Return to Work While Pumping
Returning to work after having a baby can bring some challenges with it. One of the biggest faced by new parents is how to feed your baby.
Staying home with our little ones for the first two years, six months, or even just two weeks, isn’t a reality for many new parents (and needing to choose between having kiddos or a career is seriously antiquated —unless it’s your heart’s desire -- then by all means, and we also think a stay at home mom is a beautiful career). The pandemic has increased some people’s ability to work from home; however, being a full-time parent and a full-time employee at the same time is quite the juggling act (kudos to you if you’re in that category!). But working from home isn’t an option for many new parents. And even then, many parents who work from home need to have their little one cared for in a separate setting.
Those in non-essential and essential categories of work often have the option to take some kind of parental leave, but more often, essential workers are hourly employees with lower incomes. And many don’t have access to paidleave — sometimes there’s no access to leave at all because of the rules that surround FMLA. Those that do qualify for unpaid medical leave often can’t afford to take it --and they simply need to work to survive.
The type of job you have, how much money you make, and what type of leave you’re able to take, should not affect the ability to feed your baby in the way that’s best for both of you. Going back to work means that those who want to provide human milk for their babies need to express it in order to do so.
Laws on Pumping at Work
For most parents, that means pumping at work to keep their milk supply up and also to provide the milk needed for their little one while they’re away. Expressing milk is a biological need, like eating, drinking, or using the restroom, and there are laws that protect your ability to do it.
Because we know there are enough obstacles out there to breast/chestfeeding, we looked into the laws so you don’t have to. Here’s what they look like, and also some tips on the best ways to approach your boss about your needs.
Access to a Pump
Access to a breast pump is a right for every breast/chestfeeding parent that’s insured. The Affordable Care Act requires insurers to provide a pump and lactation counseling at 100% coverage without a co-pay (some policies were in place before 2010 and they can grandfather in not supporting breast/chestfeeding, but it’s pretty rare). If you aren’t insured, there are programs available to rent or secure a breast pump as well. Find out more about that here.
Access to an Area and Time Needed
The Fair Labor Standards Act (FSLA) is a federal law that states:
You’re entitled to a private area that is not a bathroom for pumping at work (wow, just the fact that was needed to be spelled out in the law tells how often the bathroom must have been used as a makeshift pumping area before this law existed).
The designated area needs to be a space that can be secured, such as with locking a door, so it cannot be accessed by others while you’re pumping.
You are able to take reasonable amounts of break time to pump, whenever needed throughout the day, without being penalized for doing so.
The breaks taken do not have to be paid. However, if others in your position take paid breaks, you are also allowed to take the same amount of paid breaks.
This protection lasts for up to one-year after your baby is born (some states have laws that extend that time-frame -- so be sure to check your state’s requirements).
The FSLA only applies to non-exempt employees (those that are hourly), but most businesses extend those same protections to salaried employees as well.
Tips for Talking with Your Boss
Many times, management isn’t informed on what the laws look like surrounding breast/chestfeeding, and they don’t necessarily know what your needs are or what you’re entitled to by law. Different places of work have different policies on who you should approach with human resource issues such as lactation policies; be sure you follow those channels since they’re typically in place for everyone’s benefit.
In order to make the transition of feeding your baby a more seamless one while you're at work, here’s what we recommend:
Know the laws concerning breast/chestfeeding that exist in the state where you live -- that’s an important first step. If your state has stricter laws than the federal law does, the businesses in your state need to follow the stricter law. Finding what laws your state covers is a great way to approach the conversation with knowledge in hand. Visit https://www.mamava.com/breastfeeding-laws to learn about your state.
Start the conversation with your manager or human resources department when you’re still pregnant — if possible. Let them know you plan on breast/chestfeeding your baby, and you’ll need a space to pump milk and time every day in your schedule. Providing an appropriate space could take some time, so approaching them early on can be helpful for both of you. Medela has some great resources with pre-written letters and emails to either use for yourself as is, or glean from to create your own.
Provide education on why an area that is private, comfortable, clean and feels safe is important for milk production; this can help build an understanding and advocacy for your needs. It might even help provide a space that isn’t just a broom closet with a chair and table (which, by the way, is within the legal definition of what is mandatory in many states).
Talk about how often you anticipate pumping and how long those sessions could possibly go for an average person (although, let them know each person and different stages of feeding can vary greatly).
Ask what the policy is on paid breaks and what type of flexibility is available for you to make up break times if you need to.
Be open with communication and what your needs are; remember, this is a biological need -- there’s no need to apologize for taking necessary breaks or to feel pressure to not pump while at work. We’ve created a downloadable PDF for you to print and use to help spark the conversation with your boss or HR department.
Working out a plan ahead of time, and communicating with your place of employment can help you feel more at ease and lessen some of the stress that going back to work can bring. It can also give your company time to provide the things that are mandatory by law, which will be a benefit to you (and maybe others in the future).
Breast/chestfeeding, pumping, and simply being a parent can be tough -- you’re doing a fantastic job, and you’re exactly the parent your kiddo needs.
This article was sponsored by Medela as part of their ongoing work to support breast/chestfeeding parents. Learn more at Medela's Moms' Room.