Breastfeeding After an Early Return to Work

I had always planned to return to work fairly soon after my first child. I earned more than my husband, and his industry (home building) was in a huge slump. I held an administration management position with a local company that only had a small administration team. The owners of the business wanted me back and were prepared to do anything and everything necessary to get me back at work. As I was working in a male-dominated company, there were no protocols for what to do when an employee had a baby, and how to support their return to work. So while my employer wanted to support me, they actually had no idea how to.
After my son was born but before I returned to work, I sent my employer an email outlining the following: – My commitment to breastfeed to at least 12 months. I said I was very grateful that they were willing to work with me to make my transition back to work as smooth as possible, and their support meant that I would be less distracted and more able to work productively in the office – I would need to express or breastfeed several times each day while I was at work, in my office with the door closed. I would essentially be unavailable during these times. – As my son would only be 6 weeks old when I returned to work, I planned to pump each day at 10am and 3pm, and my husband would also bring my son in on my lunchbreak (around 12pm) – I would need to store my breastpump and milk in the fridge and freezer in the office kitchen. Everything would be appropriately labelled and stored (bagged) – I would inform my coworkers so that they would not be surprised to see breastmilk or my pump in the fridge or freezer, and that they would expect me to be unavailable during pump/feeds – As I was returning to work 4 days per week instead of 5, I would use my day off to catch up on emails and phone calls as required. I would also read and respond to emails from home in the evenings while my son was asleep (a huge part of my job involved communication through emails). I was available to be called on the phone when I was not at work (this was important, as our site operated 24/7) I used some of my management experience in the email I drafted. I took the lead and planned what I wanted to do, instead of asking what they wanted me to do. This is because a manager does not want his worker to bring him problems – he wants solutions. I planned everything without speaking to my employer so that all they had to do was say yes. Or no, if they didn’t approve. But since they didn’t have experience with breastfeeding mums at work, and it was in their best interests to have me back at work, I knew that they had to rely on me to set the benchmark. And that was that.
They agreed to my plan and I went back to work.
Initially it was very important that I stuck closely to my pumping schedule, because I got engorged if I was late at all. I had a medela freestyle pump, which is a double electric. I bought it because of the hands-free attachment, but unfortunately I found it too finicky, and by the time I had it on and correctly fitted, it didn’t feel very stable. So I pumped using my forearm and hand of one arm to hold the flanges and bottles in place, and used my other hand to use the phone. In the early days I used my phone to look at photos of my son to help my letdown, then gradually I was able to use it to facebook and “zone out”. As I got more confident and my employer was more comfortable with the situation, my morning pumping session actually turned into my daily brief with the Managing Director – I would talk to him about what was happening at our site and how our production figures were while I was pumping. As time went by, occasionally my husband and son came for the lunch visit while I was in a meeting with other workers. I only breastfed in these meetings a handful of times. It generally wasn’t necessary as my husband came at lunchtime anyway, and the meetings were usually wrapping up when he arrived. Some coworkers openly expressed their comfort if I wanted to breastfeed, which felt very supportive, even if I didn’t take them up on the offer. I knew from some practice sessions at home that I needed to pump for 12 minutes before the flow slowed to a stop from my breasts. However after being at work for only a few weeks, my breasts got better at letting down quickly and my pumping sessions decreased to 10 minutes, and over time I was expressing around 150-200ml in only 7 minutes. I expressed far more milk than my son would drink at home. He loved to breastfeed and was not a fan of the bottle. Although he did reluctantly drink from the bottle when I was at work, he only ever drank enough to keep his hunger at bay. Even when he was 6 months or so, he still never drank more than 70ml. So I donated the excess to another mum who was unable to produce enough breastmilk for her son due to a lack of breast tissue after reduction surgery. It was an absolute privilege to be able to give my breastmilk to another child, and I have always loved seeing photos of him from his mum on Facebook – it’s really lovely to know that I have contributed in a small way to his chubby little body and cheeky smile. Before returning to work we had two practice runs with a bottle. The Closer to Nature bottle was the one that was recommended most highly at the time, so that’s what we bought. I gave my husband the bottle and left the house each time, and each time was an absolute disaster. The first time I came back inside after hearing my sons distressed cries. The second time after waiting about 20 minutes I came back thinking we had success only to find my husband had given up and was making our son giggle instead. I was worried that my son was too much of a boob lover and would never take a bottle, and it was very nerve racking the first day I went back to work. But I trusted my husband to handle the situation, and our son was too distressed and still wouldn’t take the bottle, well my husband would be able to bring our son to work for a breastfeed in the morning instead of waiting til lunch. Luckily that was not necessary. He found that when I was well and truly out of the house, my son would take the bottle when he was tired and hungry.
If I could give one piece of advice to any mum going back to work, it’s to trust your child’s carer.
I know lots of women who really worry that their child’s care provider (especially if it’s their husband, like mine) won’t be able to cope with a baby who’s been exclusively breastfed and is only used to settling for mum. You need someone you can trust to handle the situation, and to only contact you if it’s really urgent. I’m very lucky that (although he was often nervous and a bit insecure about his parenting skills), my husband kept a cool head and kept the situation in perspective at all times. Yes, it was a worry when our son didn’t have milk for many hours. Yes, it was distressing to hear him cry. But we just as we wouldn’t panic if our son went many hours without a breastfeed through the night because he was sleeping, we didn’t need to panic if he didn’t take a bottle and didn’t have any milk until he saw me at work. Our son did cry, which we hated. But he always cried in the arms of someone who loved him and tried their best to calm him down. Over time our son got very used to his time at home with his dad. I could only ever breastfeed my son to sleep, but my husband found his own way using some jigging around (that some men may refer to as dancing haha) with our son on his shoulder to an old Sepultura album (heavy metal). The hardest thing about returning to work was that our son did something called reverse cycling. This is where a baby wakes frequently to feed during the night because he is missing quality time with mum during the day. It’s common with babies where the mother returns to work, but can also happen where mum is distracted by other kids during the day, and other scenarios. It was incredibly hard going to work when I’d been woken every 40 min-2 hours throughout the night. At one point I sought help from a social worker. Although she made me feel very validated in my concerns and stress, I opted not to go ahead with the sleep solution she offered me (which was very gentle but not gentle enough for me). I had a lightbulb moment when I read Pinky McKay’s Sleeping Like A Baby book. This book helped me so much. It made me feel so much more confident in what I was doing, and reaffirmed to me that this would pass. So I continued bedsharing and breastfeeding whenever my son would take it. And do you know what? When I stopped stressing about the lack of sleep, I wasn’t as tired! I firmly believe now that stress is WAY more exhausting than a lack of sleep! So anyway, back to my work situation. I continued working, breastfeeding and pumping until I decided I was no longer enjoying work and decided to quit to be a stay at home mum instead. I did this when my son was 18 months and my employer continued to be fairly supportive the whole time, although towards the end of my employment I felt they were wondering why on earth I was still breastfeeding my toddler who was walking and talking. But that’s a whole other story 😉
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