So you are breastfeeding your baby and everything is going very well and you are both in love with your breastfeeding relationship. However, by the time baby is about 3 months old most Irish mums begin to think about returning to work. Maternity leave in Ireland is 26 weeks paid leave, with an optional 16 weeks unpaid leave to be taken directly after maternity leave. However many families cannot afford to take the unpaid leave or they may feel under pressure to return to work at the end of the 26 weeks/6months. Self-employed mums may not be able to take more than a couple of weeks of maternity leave before they have to return to work in some capacity.
There is a very real dread about returning to work while breastfeeding, and women often feel that they cannot do both and must introduce a bottle ASAP as they have heard horror stories of babies refusing to feed from a bottle and the stress involved for parents returning to work.
There is also a prevailing notion that breastfeeding to 6 months is the goal to achieve, and anything after that is a bonus. Therefore it is often assumed that it is almost natural to wean off breastfeeding when returning to work. In fact, this is the most important time to to continue breastfeeding. Continuing to breastfeed your baby after you return to work is hugely protective, especially if your baby is in a crèche, or mixing with other smallies, as they will pick up bugs and viruses very easily. Your milk will provide them with the protection they need at this time.
Often Irish parents begin contemplating returning to work and breastfeeding when their baby is about 3 – 4.5 months old. At this age, babies are still feeding what feels like ‘all the time’, they may be going through a growth spurt and are irritable, waking more often again at night, or even refusing the breast (going on a mini-strike). However this is all temporary, and it is very important for parents to know that from 6 months old their baby will start on solid food and their ‘need’ for milk volume starts to decrease. I often have parents of 3 – 4 month olds asking me how they will cope with breastfeeding and work. I always tell them:
“I understand that right now this is very full on for you, but your baby will not need as much from you as they get older”.
The intensity of a baby’s needs evolve and as they get older can be satisfied in other ways. So try not to stress about the future, as it will evolve and unfold itself if you let it. Stressing takes away from what matters now.
But, having a plan always helps!
Where do you stand legally?
Irish women who are employed and breastfeeding are entitled (under law) to 1 hour of breastfeeding breaks for up to 26 weeks after birth. This hour can be taken in 1 x 60min break, 2 x 30 min breaks, or 3 x 20 min breaks (Citizens Information 2020).
However after 26 weeks, Irish employers are under no obligation to provide breastfeeding breaks or facilities, if doing so would give rise to considerable costs. In saying that, most employers are happy to facilitate breastfeeding breaks and storage of milk, if they are asked about it. The HSE have recently had a policy change whereby they will provide their staff with breastfeeding breaks until their baby is 2 years old. Hopefully this will encourage more business in Ireland to do the same.
Having the discussion with your employer before you go on maternity leave is the best route to take, as it alleviates any apprehension you may have when you are facing back to work after having your baby.
If you are the first person to request these facilities, and your employer does not know what you will need, you can tell him/her that you would like a warm, private space with a door that is lockable. You will need a comfortable chair, an electrical point and table so that your pump and drink/snacks/lunch are within easy reach. You will also need a fridge where you can store your milk safely. Remember, you are paving the way for the next breastfeeding mother who will need these facilities.
If your employer is resistant, it may be helpful to advise them that research shows that breastfed babies tend to be less prone to illness than formula fed babies, therefore breastfeeding mothers tend to have less sick days. Studies also show that mothers and other employees tend to feel more positive about companies that support them in continuing to breastfeed and this leads to increased worker retention (Wiessinger et al 2017, Wambach and Spencer 2021)
How long is your working day?
Generally you will need a pumping break (20mins roughly) every 3-4 hours. Therefore if you work 9-5, and you have a commute you will probably need 3 pumping breaks. However, after a few weeks, you may find that you may only need 2-3 breaks as your supply adjusts. You may need less, as you may find that baby adjusts to drinking milk mostly when you are around therefore your supply adjusts to the new routine. If you work a 12 hour shift, you will need 4 pumping breaks to start with, adjusting as you go.
Preparing to return to work:
You should start pumping a few weeks before returning to work (3-4 weeks). A double electric closed system pump is best (for further information on breast-pumps see https://latchingon.ie/postnatal/breast-pumps/ as research shows that pumping your breasts simultaneously leads to higher milk yields than pumping singly and consecutively (Wambach and Spencer 2021).
The best and easiest way to start is to pump after the 1st feed of the day, therefore baby is full, and you can store the excess milk. You can pump again after baby goes to sleep at night if it suits you. Don’t focus on the volumes of milk you are getting. Instead, focus on pumping at the same time of day (either morning or evening or both), and watching the volumes of milk slowly increase. Some days you may get very little, and others you will get more. Try not to stress about it. If you are feeling stressed, you will not pump as much milk. Make sure you are warm, look at a video or picture of your baby, and practice a little mindfulness while you are pumping. Let these little sessions become an oasis of calm rather than snatched time away from baby. If however you are having genuine concerns about not being able to build your stash, you can speak to a local breastfeeding counsellor (Cuidiu) or a Lactation Consultant, who will work with you to investigate the cause.
Fresh milk can be stored in the freezer immediately in food grade freezer bags or containers.
Breastmilk Storage Times:
Fridge – 5 days
Freezer compartment within a fridge – 2 weeks
Separate door fridge/freezer – 3-4 months
Chest freezer – 6 months or longer
If you pump 1 oz this morning, but you don’t want to freeze a small amount on its own, you can add tomorrow’s pumped amount to it (once its been chilled to the same temperature), then freeze the whole batch together.
How much milk will baby need?
Breastfed babies normally take 2-4 ounces (60-120mls) per feed. If you are away for 9 hours, La Leche League (Wiessinger et al 2017) advise that you assume that your baby will likely need about 6 x 2oz (60ml) containers of breastmilk each day.
Another way of calculating it is 1-1.5oz per hour that you are away from your baby.
Important things to consider
- It is important that your childminder/crèche are on board with how your milk is given, and that they respect your wishes. If they are giving it via bottle, it is advisable that it be given via paced feeding, in small batches at a time. Ensure your bottle has a newborn or slow flow nipple teat, so that it resembles breastfeeding as closely as possible. Or else all your hard earned milk could be given at one sitting and the remainder discarded if too much is prepared.
- Continuing to breastfeed your baby after you return to work is hugely protective, especially if your baby is in a crèche, or mixing with other smallies, as they will pick up bugs and viruses very easily. By spending a little bit of time in the morning or evening feeding your baby in the crèche, you can acclimatize to the environment and begin to make antibodies that will transmit to your baby through your milk.
- There’s nothing quite like the feeling of coming home to your little one and being so wanted and snuggling up for feeds and reassurance. Your baby may want to feed more during the night, after the change in routine, especially initially when he/she needs that reassurance and milk.
- Plan to return to work on a Thursday or Friday so that you will minimize the initial separation. Also it can give you a chance to catch up on building a stash for the week ahead, having learned a few things from the first few days.
- Some mothers are happy for their babies to have formula while they are at work, and breastfeed at all other times, but this would be the least preferred option as it can lead to reduced supply, and potentially early weaning from breastfeeding.
If your baby won’t take a bottle
There are many things you can try:
- Try a sippy cup/beaker. Your baby may be happy to take your milk in a beaker/sippy cup whilst you are away. It’s worth a try.
- Have someone other than mum feed the baby with the bottle. Mum may need to leave the house altogether for a period of time.
- Try a different teat. Different teats suit different babies.
- Try warming the teat with previously boiled water. This will soften and warm the silicone and make it feel more familiar. Make sure the milk is warm also.
- Try cup feeding if baby won’t take a bottle or beaker.
- Dance or sing while you offer the bottle.
- Offer the bottle when your baby is very sleepy: either just awake or falling asleep.
- Offer the bottle tucked up under your armpit, with the teat as close to the nipple as possible, so that the baby has to get into a breastfeeding position to feed from it.
- Offer the bottle in a different setting – out walking or in the car.
- Offer the bottle and milk chilled.
- Make a milk slushy and give it with a spoon (great for teething babies).
Returning to work is daunting, but returning to work when you are breastfeeding can be doubly daunting. It is ok to feel a little overwhelmed. One of the best things you can do is to talk to other mothers who have done it and breastfed through it. Build your community of supportive, experienced women who will be delighted to share their knowledge and experience with you. The following are resources that you may find useful:
- Local Breastfeeding Support Groups. In fact it was our online support group (Latching On https://www.facebook.com/groups/388964118932372) that inspired me to write this post, as one of the mums on the group wanted to know how to go about returning to work whilst breastfeeding.
- Online Facebook Groups. There are lots of Irish Breastfeeding and Parenting Groups that are an excellent resource. The only downside is that the experience is often anecdotal, and not research-based, so proceed with caution.
- Cuidiứ Ireland: are a free parent-to-parent support charity run by volunteer parents, many of whom are breastfeeding counsellors.
- The HSE website breastfeeding.ie and Ask the Expert on-line Lactation Consultant Service. Here you can submit a query and get a reply from a Lactation Consultant within 24 hours. All for free.
- La Leche League International’s book: “The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding” (Wiessinger et al 2017), is an excellent resource to have on your coffee table or bedside locker, with solutions to nearly every problem.
The most important thing to remember is that you don’t build it up too much in your head. Enjoy your breastfeeding journey, with all its ups and downs. Make your plan for how you are going to build your stash, work out how much milk your baby will need each day, and before you know it you will be back to work, enjoying being with your colleagues, being able to finish a cup of tea, and still supporting your baby to grow and develop while maintaining that nurturing bond between you.
Citizens Information (2020) Available at: https://www.citizensinformation.ie/en/birth_family_relationships/after_your_baby_is_born/breastfeeding.html (Accessed 21/11/2020).
Wambach K. and Spencer B. (2021) Breastfeeding and Human Lactation (6th Ed). Jones and Bartlett Learning: Burlington, Massachusetts.
Wiessinger D. West D. & Pitman T. (2017) The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding (8th Ed). La Leche League International. The Random House Publishing Group, USA.