Breastfeeding and Going Back to Work: What You Need to Know

Expert Contributors: 

Heather McFadden, lactation consultant

Simone Oliver, journalist

Rachael, communications specialist


The numbers are not in our favor. As of 2020, only 20 percent of women who work in the private sector have access to family leave, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics. Forty percent of the US workforce doesn’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act, which guarantees their job will be there for them after twelve weeks of leave. The United States is the only developed nation on earth that has no federal paid parental leave—and with a few exceptions, there aren’t state policies either*. The only other countries that offer no paid maternity leave? New Guinea and Suriname. As new mothers are rushed back to work, they are also rushed to tackle the question—and the problems—of breastfeeding. 

Know your rights.

The federal Affordable Care Act mandates that insurance companies cover the cost of breast pumps for new mothers.

And another federal mandate, called the Break Time for Nursing Mothers law, requires employers to provide breaks and a private space (that’s not a bathroom) for new mothers to express their breast milk.

Your state may have additional laws related to breastfeeding in the workplace. Here is a useful fact sheet about your legal rights.

Speak up when you need to.

Best-case scenario, the lactation room at your workplace has a comfortable chair and a strong Wi-Fi signal; worst-case, it’s a converted storage closet with a flimsy lock. If the room you are provided to pump in does not feel adequate, have a discussion with your supervisor about it. Experts suggest using a phrase like “Thank you for being so supportive” at the outset of the conversation to establish that you and your employer are both seeking a workable solution.

Be prepared to push back.

If your employer is not providing you with the space and time necessary for you to produce adequate milk to meet your baby’s needs, or you feel discriminated against as a result of asking for basic accommodations, request a meeting with your supervisor or the HR department. Bring a copy of the federal regulations and follow up with an email to keep a paper trail of everything you discuss. There are laws protecting you against breastfeeding discrimination, and a 2015 ruling by the Supreme Court made it clear that judges want to protect working mothers.

Find your allies.

“The support I had in my office, especially from the older moms who had been through this many years before me, is something I will never forget,” says Simone Oliver, a journalist in New York City. “They are the ones who gave the best advice every step of the way.”

Get a hands-free pump.

The biggest challenge of pumping at work is timing it. “Ideally you should pump on your baby’s feeding schedule,” says Dr. Julia Kearney, an obstetrician and gynecologist at Community Hospital North in Indianapolis. That can mean four breaks, each about twenty minutes long, in an eight-hour workday. That’s where wearable pumps, like the Elvie, come in. They fit into your bra, allowing for more mobility. “So many moms go back to work and, because of the nature of their job, they can’t be attached to a pump that plugs into a wall,” says Heather McFadden, an International Board Certified Lactation Consultant. Wearable pumps give them the “freedom to continue pumping even when the circumstances aren’t ideal,” she says.

Go easy on yourself.

Whether it’s a sudden letdown at a really bad time, feeling a clogged duct in the middle of a meeting, or any other of the myriad things that can go wrong at work when you’re breastfeeding, recognize that it’s not your fault. “A few weeks after I returned to work, my supply suddenly dropped, and I couldn’t keep up with demand,” says Rachael, a communications specialist in Toronto. “I cried the first time I gave my daughter formula—but then realized the whole point was that my baby was happy and fed. That made me feel so much better about it.”