Yep. I'm finally going there. I've debated for a long time whether or not I should write about my experience with breastfeeding. It's such a personal subject, and every woman's experience is different. But by some miracle I've been able to exclusively breastfeed Emma while working full time for the past 14 months and we're still going strong... so I hope that in sharing my experience and what has helped me along the way I might be able to help other working mamas.
(Disclaimer: if you are my father or father-in-law, we're getting into specifics here, so while I appreciate you reading my little blog, this post may not be for you.) :-)
It has been my experience that our relationship with breastfeeding our babies is always evolving. As our baby's needs change, so must nursing. I think this is one of the most challenging aspects of nursing - you finally feel like everything is working, and a tooth comes in or your supply changes and suddenly you're stressed and find yourself questioning whether or not it's time to wean. These moments aren't made any easier by the comment you get over and over and over again from well-meaning friends and family: "Oh you're still breastfeeding? That's great." Equal parts supportive and judgy, the "still" always feels so loaded, even if it's not. I am neither hero nor freak of nature - I'm simply a mom who's trying to do what's best for her baby. So without further adieu, here's how I've made it work over the past 14 months...
Breastfeeding did not come easily for me. In fact, I know very few women who didn't experience some element of difficulty when they first started nursing. Yes, breastfeeding is best - but it can also be really really hard. Emma wanted to nurse 24/7 and I just couldn't get a good latch, so nursing was extremely painful. There were a lot of tears and a lot of crappy moments feeling like a failure as a mama. To get through it until I could come up with a better solution, I ended up pumping on the most painful side. So each feeding consisted of a bottle and whatever she wanted from the less painful side. Around 2 months, and after help from an amazing lactation consultant, craniosacral therapy for Emma, and time to - well - let things toughen up, nursing finally got better. Those were two of the most difficult months of my life, but I'll be forever thankful that I stuck it out. And because I was already pumping I ended up with a decent stash of reserves so I had more than enough for that first day back at work.
The transition back to work wasn't nearly as bad as I had feared. I am very fortunate to work for a company and bosses that are not only understanding of my desire to breastfeed my baby, but are also extremely supportive - and yes, there's a difference. When I worked from the office (I just started working from home a couple of months ago) I had a private room to pump in that no one else ever used, and I found it fairly easy to plan my 10-15 minute pumping sessions around meetings. My biggest stress regarding pumping at work didn't have anything to do with privacy or feeling like it was impacting my performance - it was whether or not I was pumping enough. It's an obsessive task, all the counting of ounces, making sure the bottles have just the right amount. At 3 months, Emma was taking three to four 4.5 ounce bottles while she was at daycare and thankfully when I first went back I could easily pump that much and then some.
My oversupply gradually turned into just enough, and then not enough. By 6 months my pumping output had become less predictable and even though Emma was taking a bit less at daycare (three 4 ounce bottles), around 9 months I added a 4th pumping session right before I went to bed just so I could round out the next day's bottles. I know what you're thinking... what a chore! But I wasn't ready to give up nursing and make the switch to super pricey formula so I did what I had to do.
Aside from supply stresses, the other major challenge I've faced being a breastfeeding working mom is travel. I usually travel about once a month for work - sometimes day trips, sometimes overnight. And as a result I have pumped in more places than I care to count... airport bathrooms, airport nursing rooms (yay SFO and SEA!), airplane bathrooms, client bathrooms, client nursing rooms (yay Accenture!), train bathrooms, hotel rooms, hotel lobby bathrooms, and rental cars. I'm pretty sure having an automatic toilet flush underneath you before you're done is the worst feeling I've encountered in a public bathroom, but pumping milk for my baby while people are doing god knows what in the stalls next to me is a very close second. Pumping in bathrooms is always a last resort, and sometimes you just have to do what you have to do... plug your nose, think of a happy place, and seal everything up as quickly as possible.
I've been fortunate to never have a single issue getting my milk or pump through TSA, and I've taken a decent amount of milk through. If I'm going for a day trip I just pack the little cooler and ice pack that fits in my pump bag (I have the Medela Pump in Style) and use either my pump bag or my laptop bag to hold my wallet, keys, etc. so that I don't go over my 2 carry on limit. For overnight trips, I'll use the same approach and use the little plastic storage bags for milk since you can fit a lot in the cooler, or I'll pack a slightly bigger cooler in my suitcase.
Storing milk overnight can be a bit tricky depending on your hotel. I'm a Starwood gal and have always had good experiences with them either having a fridge I can fit my milk in or bringing a mini fridge up to my room. A lot of people don't know the mini fridge is an option at most hotel chains... you just have to ask!
When we moved and Emma started her new daycare, I decided to do something that has completely changed my relationship with pumping... I decreased her to 2 bottles a day, and I'm just sending what I pump. I sometimes don't even look at the ounces. I'm lucky if I get 2 ounces out in a pumping session, and that's okay. She's getting almost everything she needs from food, and still isn't tolerating plain milk very well, so I'm happy to continue supplementing her nutrition with breastmilk. Plus, with working from home I've found it's nice to have those 2 forced breaks to step away from my computer.
At this point I'm just following Emma's lead... My original goal was just to get to a year, and I'm the first to admit I didn't think I'd still be nursing at this point. I keep expecting her to lose interest, but so far she's just as eager for her 4 daily nursing sessions as she always has been. Her daytime sessions are short and sweet, but her morning and bedtime sessions are still around 15 minutes. And now she eagerly signs for milk and it's the cutest thing ever. How can I say no to that? Yes, I'd love to stop having to pump, but every time I have those moments of feeling like it's not worth it, I think about actually nursing Emma - not pumping - and how wonderful and rewarding it is and I just can't bring myself to wean her before she's ready.
You may think after reading all of this - wow, she's put in a crazy amount of effort just to be able to breastfeed her baby - but for as selfless as pumping can feel, still being able to breastfeed and have that bond with my baby feels wonderfully selfish. Yes, breastfeeding is hard... it can be emotionally and physically draining, but it has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life and I'm grateful every day that I stuck with it.
UPDATE! I realized from Andrea's comment below that while I blabbed on and on about my experience, I didn't include a ton of tips aside from the travel stuff. So... here are my top 5 tips for making breastfeeding work as a working mom:
- Be unapologetically stubborn - With yourself, with your job, with every thought and comment that makes you question if this is all worth it. It will take work, and there will be highs and lows, but if this is what you want, it's definitely achievable.
- Find a good lactation consultant to work with - Us moms tend to have a tough time asking for help, but this is one area you don't have to (and shouldn't!) go it alone. But not all lactation consultants are made equal and it's important that you find one that you're comfortable with and that is supportive of your goals. Even if you're not having issues with breastfeeding, they can be invaluable in getting you prepped to go back to work - from making sure your pump is working for you, that you're using the right shield size (I had no idea I wasn't), and that you're pumping the right amount for your baby.
- Find something to do while pumping that nurtures your soul - Your pumping sessions don't always have to feel like a chore. You're not a dairy cow! Whether it's having a piece of chocolate, reading a good book, or doing some stretching after you're done, treat your pumping sessions as an opportunity to do something that's just for you and you might actually start looking forward to those breaks.
- Reevaluate your baby's needs as your supply changes - This is one of the most stressful aspects for pumping moms, and it's important to make sure you're considering your baby's changing needs as you experience decreases in your supply. It could be that your baby needs less, and you should attempt to send smaller bottles to daycare before you start stressing out and adding unnecessary pumping sessions. The website Kelly Mom was immensely helpful to me as I navigated these changes.
- Remember that everything is a phase - This is probably the best parenting advice I've gotten so far: Everything is a phase... the good stuff, the bad stuff, the teething and biting, the distracted nursing. Treasure the good times and don't panic during the bad times because they're all fleeting. This has been especially helpful for me to keep in mind as a working mom - the pumping won't last forever but neither will breastfeeding. Try not to stress too much about the former, and cherish the latter.
What about you? What has your experience with breastfeeding while working been like? Are you going back to work soon and have questions? Let me know!