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Pumping at work can become a roadblock to your breastfeeding journey. Here’s how you can navigate it before and after you give birth.

Two women at work
Photo credit: WOCinTech Flickr Group

Deciding you want to breastfeed is one thing—actually being able to do so is a completely different story.

One of the barriers to sustained and successful breastfeeding is figuring out how to pump at work. While breastfeeding women have the legally protected right to “reasonable break time” and a safe space to pump, anecdotal evidence and Department of Labor cases show that often isn’t the case. A HuffPost investigation found cases of women having to pump in public restrooms, on top of a supply closet garbage can, in public break rooms, and in other stressful and unsafe spaces.

Pumping at work is an issue that can cost new and breastfeeding moms time, money, their jobs, and peace of mind. I spoke to lactation educator counselor, doula, and Milk Boss 101 author Anjelica Malone about how women can advocate for themselves when it comes to pumping at work.

Your book Milk Boss 101 is about building a community to help support your breastfeeding journey. That community includes a lactation professional, your partner, friends, and family. How can you apply that to your job?

You need support in all aspects of your life. The idea that all of it is going to rest on you is just too much. Your co-workers have no idea how to support you. They just see you bouncing every three hours to go somewhere.

I would advise that you get somebody from work [to help support you]. Once you’ve got through all the hurdles of the first few weeks of breastfeeding and you return to work, you’re going to need someone at work who’s like “Hey, I’ll cover you, girl, while you’re out pumping” or “Hey, I know you’re so busy right now and you’re deep in this meeting, but didn’t you tell me to keep up your milk supply you’re going to need to be doing blah blah blah?” Instead of going back to work and now announcing to your boss, “Hey, I need all this help with breastfeeding. I need a room.”

How do you advocate for your plans for pumping at work?

Legally, if you work at a business with over 50 employees [you’re protected]. Less than 50 employees, just to be frank, you don’t really have any breastfeeding rights. You can negotiate with your boss and ask about breastfeeding support and pumping, but I believe 50 employees or less there are no actual laws.

[Editor’s Note: The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) provides protections for breastfeeding women working at companies with 50 or more employees up to a year after their baby’s birth. If they work at a company with fewer than 50 employees, the company can apply for exemption from the law, but only if following the law would cause “undue hardship for their business.” Without that exemption, they must still follow the requirement.]

What I recommend is that you begin to let your supervisor know before you even leave for maternity leave that you plan on breastfeeding. It doesn’t have to be a big conversation. Maybe when you’re getting ready to go on maternity leave you have a little meeting with them: “Hey, I’m planning on breastfeeding. This is something that I’ll be doing when I get back to work. It will involve pumping. Every couple of hours of the day I’ll have to step out. I don’t have a ton of knowledge right now about what that will look like, but I’m working with a . That lactation professional and I will come up with a plan, we’ll keep you in the loop, and I’ll make sure I am able to break it all down for you before I go back to work.”

…Talk to your supervisor beforehand. If you guys have a break room, that’s a possible place to pump.

That allows the employer to prepare before you even leave. They already get in their head, “I know this employee is going to want to pump. Let me look up what I’m responsible for.” If you wait until you’re ready to go back to work, they’re going to have to scramble. And even if they’re really supportive of breastfeeding, [you’ve] put them in a bad place. Now there’s tension around it. 

So first let them know what you’d like to do. Then let them know that even before you return to work, you will come in for a specific meeting. If you have a coach [or] someone who’s committed to [your breastfeeding journey], you can say to that person, “Hey, Anjelica. I’m going to go in on August 30 and talk to my boss. Would you mind coming with me to explain what we’re going to do? I’m still learning this.”

And that person can be like “Maybe the 30th doesn’t work, but can we do September 1? I’ll go in with you.”

Perfect! Then you can schedule a time to sit down with your supervisor to explain to them exactly what it will look like. Then you can come up with a plan, and they’re like, “I don’t have a partner who’s ever breastfed…” or “I haven’t breastfed, so I don’t know anything about this. Could you help me find a place in our office where we can accommodate her? What kind of stuff do we need?”

All of that has to happen as well. If not, you have a mom just trying to figure it all out on her own and then trying to scramble when she goes back to work to explain it all to someone who may have zero breastfeeding knowledge.

What about the woman who wants to breastfeed, but she’s a part-time employee at McDonald’s or there’s no space outside of the company bathroom to use? How can you advocate for yourself when work isn’t at a traditional office?

So let’s go with the McDonald’s example. In that case, [it’s] the same kind of protocol where you talk to your supervisor beforehand. If you guys have a break room, that’s a possible place to pump. If you’re working part time, and you work like a five-hour, six-hour shift, that’s going to be one to two pumping sessions. It takes about 20-30 minutes for moms who are using a double-electric pump, which is the one you should be using if you’re going to pumping regularly.

If you can talk to your supervisor, they can talk to the other employees, saying “Hey, there’s going to be one instance on so-and-so’s shift where they’re going to have to go into this room and no one is going to go in there.”

The other option that I also offer to women is you can pump in your car. I know that’s not the most ideal place, but you can turn [on] the air conditioner, you can put a blanket over the window. You can put [on] a hands-free pumping bra, which allows you to hook it all up and you can put your shirt down or [have] a nursing cover over you. You can sit in the car and read a book [or] listen to the radio while you’re pumping. You can even be sitting in the parking lot of McDonald’s and people wouldn’t even really notice. You could bring a cooler to work, which would allow you to keep [the milk] cool while you’re there.

How would you handle pushback from a supervisor about pumping at work?

If there’s an HR associated with the business, I would have her contact them.

If they don’t seem to be giving her help, I would contact a local breastfeeding organization, [like] a La Leche League. A lot of cities have a breastfeeding coalition, so they’d be able to give you really good advice [on] local support and local laws. That could really help if you’re getting pushback.

Watch Anjelica’s Facebook Live on breastfeeding and Pumping
Additional Pumping At Work Resources

Breastfeeding Coalitions Directory

Article: “The Ultimate Guide To Survive Breast Pumping At Work”

Article: “Moms Tips For Breastfeeding When You’re Back To Work”

United States Breastfeeding Committee Guide To Federal Workplace Law

Office On Women’s Health Guide To Breastfeeding And Going Back To Work

U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission’s Guide On Pregnancy Discrimination And Related Issues

Article: “10 Easy Fixes For Pumping At Work”

KellyMom: Resources For Working And Pumping Tips

And check out the National Database of Lactation Support Groups for Families of Color

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Tomi Akitunde is the founder of mater mea.


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