The Nursing Mom’s Guide to Going Back to Work

Maternity leave is almost over.  You are breastfeeding your baby and you are worried.

(And if you’re worried about breastfeeding at night, we have you covered!)

You are worried about leaving your little one during the day, concerned about how to adjust to the new routine and also how you are going to keep up with nursing.

We get that!

My sister-in-law, Melissa Crohn, is back with the ultimate guide for the nursing mom going back to work.  She’s going to take you through how to:

  • adjust your work and home life to the new routine
  • find the necessary supplies to making pumping time easier
  • prep both your heart and your health for daycare and,
  • how to divvy up the tasks between you and your spouse

Take it away, Melissa.

I have always known I would go back to work after having my son. For me, work is fuel, filling many tanks – big ones like identity, community, and self-worth. But regardless of the reason for heading to work after having a baby, working and being a mom takes some industrial grade gas – especially in those first few months of adjustment.

Returning to work after maternity leave is HARD.

It’s emotional, it’s tiring, and it can be political. But through trial-and-error and the wisdom of other mamas, there’s quite a bit you can do to get better mileage both in your career and as a parent while navigating what will feel like a whole new world at work.

But before we jump in, I want to say a few words about “having it all.” For most working moms I know, the phrase “having it all” – both a successful career and flourishing family life – haunts them as they work and parent, and is typically punctuated by guilty question marks:

Can I have it all?

Am I having it all?

Is it OK to try and have it all?

My personal answers to these questions are usually positive, not because I am any more capable than any other mama, but because of the way I choose to define “having it all.” For me, “having it all” means doing the best I can as a
mother and a teacher, and savoring the joys that each bring me.

It does not mean simultaneously being Teacher and Mom of the Year, maintaining the 60 hour work weeks of my past and the full-time job of motherhood, or doing any of it without some ugliness and struggle.

And because of this definition of “having it all,” there were several, very special moments amidst the chaos of the first few months where I felt like I did “have it all:” like I was trying my best as a mother and teacher and savoring special joys in each domain.

My advice boils down to this: Loosen your expectations to accommodate a less perfect, more human experience.

Give yourself permission to make mistakes and grow from them, both as a parent and a professional. Allow challenge and failure and ugly crying to have their place in “having it all” .  As you do, you will not only find yourself “having it all,” but you will find yourself modeling some pretty sweet concepts (emotional health, overcoming adversity, and perseverance, to name a few) for your little ones.

The following tips are what worked for me when returning to the classroom, making my load just a little bit lighter. May they do the same for you!

Make Cuts at Work

Perhaps the harshest reality of going back to work postpartum is that we are just not able to give to the job what we gave before baby. Cutting corners will not be a last resort; it will be a necessity.

The Ultimate guide to feeling prepared when you are a breastfeeding mom going back to work. This details what accessories you need, how to lessen your workload and how to prepare for dropping your little one off at day care.

This does not necessarily mean that on-the-job performance of new parents must suffer. In my experience, admitting my limitations before I returned to the classroom actually helped me to think strategically about how I could teach on a time and energy budget.

In the weeks leading up to my return to school, I asked myself:

  • what habits, tasks, and commitments can be cut with the least impact on my students and colleagues?
  • What new habits can be refined to give me more time?

For me as a teacher:

  • I cut things like extra-curricular commitments like my sponsorship of the school GSA.
  • I moved after-school tutoring sessions to our Academic Lab period during the day.
  • I decided (begrudgingly) that my regular parent emails regarding upcoming assignments and student performance could be drastically reduced. I could then add these back in once I got used to working motherhood.
  • I vowed not to spend time grading anything that could be graded by a TA, even if it meant students would have to wait a little while longer to receive scores on vocab and reading quizzes.

For non-teacher working moms, the corners are going to look different. Some of them might feel like a tremendous sacrifice. Making the cuts consciously is so much better than being forced, in a panic, to forsake something that was never meant for the chopping block.

Make Cuts in your Morning Routine

During those first few months of working motherhood, most of us will be sleep-deprived. In my experience, no amount of coffee could do what one extra hour of sleep could.  Therefore, I whittled away my morning routine to allow myself to sleep every precious second possible.

Going Back to Work Routine

  1. If my son woke up earlier than usual, my husband would take charge of the morning wake-up/diaper/dressing routine, as I stayed on night-feeding duty to maintain our breastfeeding relationship.
  2. I relegated all the prep for the day (i.e. pump, bottle, and lunch packing) to afternoons.
  3. I cut the non-essentials. I invested in cute headbands and a hairstyle that still looked stylish up (cut my hair routine to 5-10 min) and cut my makeup routine to mascara, foundation, and blush only (5 min).

Finally, after really rough nights I would go into emergency-morning-routine:

  • protein shake for an on-the-go breakfast
  • mascara-only
  • maybe skip the shower

Though I love a good slow morning with an elaborate breakfast, coffee while reading, and freshly wanded curls, during the early months, it was worth letting them go.

Once you are at work, its best to keep the following items in mind.

Set Boundaries

Everyone knows that parenting babies is hard (they certainly made a point of telling me so when I was pregnant), so I was shocked when I returned to work and felt like I was expected to be operating at my full, pre-leave capacity.

I found myself completely overwhelmed by deadlines and obligations I had easily met pre-baby; my son was still nursing 2-3 times per night and the entire family had been repeatedly sick.

I was regularly taking fetal-position naps in my classroom on my prep hour, losing on-duty work time I desperately needed just to make it through the day.

I think at times I wished that my colleagues would reconsider tight deadlines or heavy workloads for me, in light of the challenges I was facing as a new mother. But the reality is that everyone is juggling something, be it parenthood, chronic illness, or supporting other family members. So in most workplaces and in most scenarios, you are going to be the sole guardian of your boundaries, rights, sleep, health, and family time – not colleagues, bosses, or admin. So guard them, and guard them fiercely from the first day you set foot on the job site.

Say no.

Take your pumping breaks.

Arrive and leave on time.

Your baby will only be a baby for so long, and you will only be working on next to no sleep for a (hopefully) short time.

Pump Smart

Pumping is about to demand a decent chunk of your work time, so efficiency is key. The great news is that there is a fair amount of cool pump “tech” and a world of mama wisdom to make your pump breaks work for you.The Ultimate guide to feeling prepared when you are a breastfeeding mom going back to work. This details what accessories you need, how to lessen your workload and how to prepare for dropping your little one off at day care.

1. A double-pump is an absolute must; it cuts your pump time in half.

2. Hands-free bras and tanks exist! They can be a real game-changer, allowing you to pump while you work, eat, make phone calls, etc.

Here are a few options:
Classic All-in-one Nursing and Hands-Free Pumping Tank
Lansinoh Simple Wishes Hands-Free Breast Pump Bra 
Medela Easy Expression Bustier Hands-Free Pumping Bra

You can also DIY your own hands-free pumping bra. Check out this how-to from KellyMom!

3. If possible, consider purchasing two pumps, one through insurance. This will minimize the ever-expanding amount of stuff you have to lug to and fro, and will also save you from the hassle if you ever forget your pump at work. Mommy brain is real, people!

4. Consolidate your efforts with cleaning, assembling, and schlepping the massive amount of parts that come with pumping. I steam-sanitized pump parts once a day and used Medela Quick Clean Wipes  to clean them after each pumping session. I bought two days’ worth of bottles and parts (if you can afford three, do it!) so that I could pump directly into bottles or immediately transfer milk and supplements to them. The bottles I got back from daycare could then be dishwasher cleaned (dishwashers use heat to sanitize, so no need to steam-bag sanitize after) and air dried.

I love my Medela Breastmilk Cooler and Ice Pack, which is small enough that I can store my milk right in my pump bag and transfer into my purse if I need to run errands after work – no need to worry about leaving milk in the work fridge!

My routine the second I get home is to re-freeze ice packs (always have an extra in the freezer just in case), refrigerate tomorrow’s bottles, load up dirty bottles in the dishwasher and set it to run, and sanitize pump parts and set them to dry. This process takes maybe 5 minutes tops, and another 3 in the morning to load up bottles and freezer packs.

5. Though I never worried about nurse- or pumping-accessible clothing (generally everything in my wardrobe can be yanked up or down with less fuss than a specialty wardrobe costs), I made sure to keep a full-coverage cardigan at work in case of any boobie emergencies. I spilled milk on myself on a near daily-basis, but thankfully breastmilk dries clear on most fabrics and wipes away with water on others.

6. Check out these links for tips on maintaining or upping milk supply.

Let’s talk now about how to prepare for your little one being in daycare.

Daycare Prep for your Heart

There is no way around it: leaving our babies to go to work is hard. Even if we love our jobs, even if we aren’t cut out for staying at home, even if our children are in ideal care and nap, eat, and play in all the right ways.

This makes it vital that we care for ourselves emotionally as we, as well as our littles, get accustomed to daycare. The following was not only helpful during those first few weeks, but continues to help me stay emotionally centered as a working mom.The Ultimate guide to feeling prepared when you are a breastfeeding mom going back to work. This details what accessories you need, how to lessen your workload and how to prepare for dropping your little one off at day care.

1. Dad took drop-off. When divvying up responsibilities, we relegated the more gut-wrenching task of dropping the little off at daycare to my husband, who was far less emotional about the return to work. Pick-up is awesome; I get to drive over full of excitement to see him and see that heart-melting look of recognition in his eyes as he sees me!

2. I had my own “lovey” that reminded me of my baby, just like he went to daycare with a blanket I’d slept with for a week. I went to work with a couple printed photos, a necklace with his birthstone, and a phone loaded up with videos to play while I pumped (a great stimulator of oxytocin!). It is absolutely OK to forget we are moms for a few hours at work; it is also OK to keep them close to our hearts.

3. I leaned on mom buddies at work. There were a couple fellow teachers who I knew I could share the latest in my son’s development that others might find mundane (“Can you believe it? He can turn his head from side to side!!!”), receive comfort from when missing him, or commiserate with about pumping woes. Childless friends often care just as much as those with children, but there’s something powerful about a confidante who has been there, too.

4. I learned to be mindful of the way I checked in on baby. My first daycare provider used an app to log my son’s every move at daycare, from feedings to naps to playtime activities. My husband and I could easily sync with the app on our phones and see how things were going at our leisure.

This, for me, was a disaster.

I obsessed over absolutely everything, checking the app often hourly, wondering why a nap was short, why a feeding took so long, why the app wasn’t updated in the last 15 minutes?!

Eventually, I started permitting myself only one check-in at the end of the day. This way, if I had questions, I could get them answered in a timely (not to mention sane) fashion. I also saved myself the inevitable over-analysis.

When we started at my son’s current daycare provider, I allowed myself a phone call at lunch every day for the first week. Then, I relaxed into just hearing the update at pick-up.

The reality is that babies are babies; they change day to day. They will refuse naps. They will have weird 1.5 oz feedings, They will have bad days and good days (just like at home!). Too much access to daycare data can do more harm than good for hyperanalytical mamas like me.

5. I tried to reserve at least an hour a night to just play with my little. That may mean that we eat frozen meals or the dishes don’t get done. There’s tons of research that says it is not the amount of time spent with children that matters; it’s the quality.

Daycare Prep for your Health

Oh, how very very sick I was almost the entire first two months at our daycare center! There were times baby was sick, times the entire family was sick, but never a time when a bug came home and I managed to avoid it.

While I was told by many parents that the first year at daycare “was just going to suck” healthwise, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with a few preventative and coping measures.

My hard-earned advice?

  • Keep taking those prenatal vitamins
  • add a probiotic for gut health
  • wash those hands with gusto,
  • and Coldcalm is my favorite breastfeeding-friendly cold relief product.

Beyond that, I will say that the sleep-deprivation of the first few months of parenthood definitely created a new “baseline” for what constitutes “feeling 100%.”  When I first returned to work, the 60% of working while sick felt frickin’ fantastic compared to the 10% of every-two-hour night feedings. That’s comforting, right? In a weird, mildly depressing way?

Don’t feel that you are in this alone.  Here are a few ways you can split up the tasks between you and your partner.

Divide and Conquer

As new working parents, it makes sense to divvy up the workload.The Ultimate guide to feeling prepared when you are a breastfeeding mom going back to work. This details what accessories you need, how to lessen your workload and how to prepare for dropping your little one off at day care.

My husband used to start work at 10 and was often still in bed when I left for work pre-baby.  It made a huge difference for us to establish the same morning schedule. We got up within 15 minutes of one another and took turns with the wee one while the other showered.

Beyond the morning juggle, there’s a lot that Dad can do to divide and conquer:

Can Dad drop off baby at daycare and Mom pick-up?

How about covering morning wake-up duty while Mom does night feeding?

Dad could also handle bottle prep while mom does pump prep; some Dads even take over “part patrol” since Mom is juggling pumping all day.

This kind of tag-teaming is not only fair, it’s good for marriage; working together to creatively catapult over its many hurdles has been one of the unexpected joys of new parenthood.

Though I’ve certainly learned plenty in hindsight, my return to work has been anything but perfect. There are times that I retreat to bathroom stalls to cry, times I forget tutoring sessions or miss deadlines, times I run a classroom with a fever on a few hours of sleep.

But I also have times that I connect with colleagues and students in new and unexpected ways, times I understand a conflict or challenge differently specifically because I am a parent, and times the parts of myself that existed before motherhood get to stretch, flex, and grow.

There are also times where I am butterflies-in-my-stomach, crazy-in-love, better-watch-the-speed-limit excited to collect my little bundle at the end of the day. If those things – the good and bad – can be the “all” in “having it all,” then by George, mamas, I think we can have it.


Melissa Crohn

Having many careers in her life, Melissa Crohn is now a high school English teacher and loves to write and journal in her spare time.  She’s enjoying life as a new mom to a baby boy.

Want to know how you can be more productive while you are at work?  Click on to keep reading.

JoAnn Crohn

CEO/Founder at No Guilt Mom
JoAnn Crohn, M. Ed is a parenting educator and life coach who helps moms feel confident in raising empowered, self-sufficient kid while pursuing their own goals & passions.

She’s an accomplished writer, author, podcast host of the No Guilt Mom podcast, and speaker who appears in national media. Work with her personally in Balance VIP

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