pumping at work

Lactation in the Lab: What You Need to Know About Pumping at Work

When you think about having a baby, you picture all kinds of things. The good: cute baby clothes, new baby smell, unlimited cuddles. The bad: sleepless nights, bodily fluids, being on-call 24-7.

You probably also give some thought to coming back to work. You planned out your maternity leave, paid or not, and figured out how your projects will be taken care of when you are gone. One part of coming back to work as a breastfeeding mother that you may or may not have given thought to is pumping at work.

Coming back to work while breastfeeding is a whole new kind of challenge. It takes time out of your day when you’re already working hard to catch up on projects. Dealing with pumps and lactation rooms is novel.

It does not have to be stressful, though. Here are some tips for women returning to work and their coworkers.

Tips for Pumping Moms

Figure out Where You Will Pump Ahead of Time

When I started a new postdoctoral fellowship at a new institution with a 5 month old, I had no idea how to find out about a lactation room. Academia is not like a company where you would just ask HR this kind of question. The only contact I had was my new boss, so I emailed him. His secretary found me an empty office and that worked for me. It turns out though, that because my lab is attached to a hospital, there are lots of nice, dedicated lactation rooms at my institution. I could have found out about them with a quick internet search.

Know Your Rights About Pumping at Work

If your workplace does not already have a lactation room, they will have to figure something out. The U.S. Department of Labor states that if your employer has more than 50 employees, they are required to provide a place to pump that is not a bathroom. At the minimum, it needs to be “a space temporarily created or converted into a space for expressing milk or made available when needed by the nursing mother […] provided that the space is shielded from view, and free from any intrusion from co-workers and the public.”

Using a Prepared Space

Your institution may have well-appointed pumping rooms that you just need to get access to. If this is the case, congratulations! Make sure you get access in plenty of time. It may even be worth taking a day before you go back to work full time to check out the space and make sure you know how to get there, have the proper access, and have all the accessories you need. You do not want to find out you will not be able to pump at the moment when you need it (spoken from experience – one day I forgot my key to the pumping room – it was stressful and painful).

Making Your Own Space

If they don’t have a dedicated room for pumping at work, here’s what you’ll need: You need a place that is clean and private. It is better if it is not too far away from your lab as you may be pumping up to three times a day. Extra bonuses include a place to store your breastmilk and a place to wash pump parts. (And since you probably don’t want your lab bench 70% ethanol spray bottle to be your only backup, bring some dedicated wipes to clean your pump parts if you don’t have access to a sink.)

The Pump

Figure out if you will need to bring your own pump or if there is one provided. Some lactation rooms have pumps for you (if you’re very lucky!). If so, there may be unique parts, like tubing, you’ll need that may be different than what you would need for your own pump.

The supplied pumps may be worth using even if you have your own for a number of reasons: They may be higher quality, which means shorter pumping times and better production. Also, you don’t have to carry your own, which is convenient.

Handy tip if you are using the industrial pumps and your lab is next to a hospital – the mother baby unit can give you the tubing!

You’ll also want to think about other accessories to bring – wipes, receiving blanket to clean up, etc.

Don’t Let the Guilt Get You!

Mom guilt is real, but it does not have to get you down. Many women feel guilty for the time they spend pumping at work that takes away from productive work time. Many women feel guilty that they are not producing enough milk at work to keep up with their babies.

It can be difficult to keep up your supply when you’re not with your baby all day. It is totally normal for you to absolutely love being back at work and to still feel some stress about it. Keep it in check by remembering that you are not alone. It is also helpful to remember that as a researcher, you are lucky that you have a somewhat flexible schedule. Finding a time to pump is much easier than for those who are not in control of their schedules.

Tips for Labmates

Milk in the Fridge

You may have little to no experience with breastfeeding and not know what to think about seeing expressed milk in the same refrigerator as your lunch. After all, our society can be a little bit squeamish about breasts in the context of milk production. Just keep in mind that it is a healthy and natural process. When you see breastmilk in the fridge, don’t be grossed out. After all, it is probably much more pleasant than most of the things in your lab fridge. Don’t touch it and don’t say anything about it. If there is no better place in your workplace for breastmilk storage, then the mom is doing the best she can and does not need your commentary.

Don’t Complain

Along the same lines, please, don’t complain about the resources that are required to provide a space for women to pump.

Be Respectful of Those Pumping at Work

Be aware and respectful of pumping spaces. Nobody wants to be walked in on while exposed and feeling vulnerable. Some pumping rooms will be obviously marked, but others may be less clear. Some women pump in their offices. If you are unsure, steer clear or at the very least knock.

Also, don’t use the lactation room for other purposes. Nobody wants to have to wake you up from a nap to use the lactation room. One of my husband’s colleagues started using their lactation room to make kombucha. Apparently someone commented on the smell and it got shut down, but regardless, that is not an appropriate use of the room.

Feeding your baby is probably not as difficult as the rest of what you’re doing at work. With a little knowledge and preparation, you can be a pumping pro and a supportive colleague. Be prepared, be respectful, and you’ll be just fine.

4 Comments

  1. kate C. on May 2, 2017 at 5:05 pm

    Great article!

    • Ruth Barrett on May 9, 2017 at 10:34 pm

      Thank you!

  2. Kim on May 2, 2017 at 4:16 pm

    Thank you for acknowledging working and pumping moms in the lab! It is indeed a challenge to balance the breaks needed for pumping with the demands of long research protocols. In my experience, pumping for 2 kids x 1 year each, I used some of this pumping time to read extra papers and plan experiments. In addition to giving my children a healthy start, I ended up publishing a paper on prolactin gene expression during this time!

    • Ruth Barrett on May 9, 2017 at 10:35 pm

      That’s so great! I’m glad you could be productive while pumping.

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