Breastfeeding when you return to work
Practical tips to help you plan ahead.
Work and family can be difficult to balance at the best of times. For breastfeeding mothers returning to work after giving birth it can easily feel overwhelming.
Breastfeeding gives children the healthiest start in life. Breastmilk acts as a baby’s first vaccine, stimulates brain development and protects a woman’s health. That’s why UNICEF and WHO call on governments and employers to put in place family-friendly policies that provide mothers with the time, space and support they need to breastfeed.
Here are some practical tips to help you plan and make the transition back to work a little easier.
Tell your family, friends and co-workers about your decision to breastfeed and seek out breastfeeding support groups. They can help you find solutions and support you along the way.
Here are some of the ways that women continue to breastfeed their babies while working:
- Keep their babies with them and breastfeed throughout the day.
- If the workplace is nearby, go home during the day to breastfeed or have someone bring their baby to them.
- If the workplace is further away, use a day care centre nearby where they can go to breastfeed during their workday.
- If breastfeeding during working hours is not possible, learn to express their milk and leave a supply for a caregiver to feed their baby.
Breastfeeding support at work
Does your employer offer any support, such as on-site childcare or can mothers bring their babies to work?
At a minimum, your employer needs to comply with any existing legislation on maternity leave and workplace breastfeeding support. Check what is required where you live.
Ask about your workplace lactation policy. Is there a lactation room? How does it work? If your work doesn’t have one, speak with your manager or HR department about what support can be provided, such as access to a private room.
If your workplace does not have a policy on breastfeeding support yet, you may wish to consider sharing UNICEF’s recommendations.
Rather than diving straight back into a five-day work week, see if there can be some flexibility in your schedule when you start back. If possible, a gradual return, temporary part-time work or teleworking can all help you adjust to the disruption of your breastfeeding routine.
If you work a night shift, try to ask if you could be reassigned to a morning shift to allow direct breastfeeding during the night.
Remember, your employer has a responsibility to ensure your safety in the workplace and should also prohibit discrimination in the workplace on the basis of pregnancy, breastfeeding or family status.
What is a lactation room?
A lactation or breastfeeding room should be a clean, comfortable, safe and private space. The main function is for mothers to breastfeed their children, express milk and store it properly.
What should a breastfeeding room include?
To preserve the breastmilk until you take it and feed it to your child, it is necessary to have a cold storage system available which should preferably be a freezer or fridge for the exclusive use of the breastfeeding room.
Ideally, the breastfeeding room should have handwashing facilities and necessary supplies such as drinking water, liquid soap dispenser, hand sanitizer, cleaner for surfaces and paper towels.
The room must have a comfortable chair, preferably an individual seat with adjustable height and good back support rather than a sofa. It must be made of a material that allows it to be easily washed and disinfected.
Location, accessibility and privacy
A breastfeeding room should be located in a physically separate area that is close to your workspace and away from the toilets. The space should be directly accessible and fully available during the workday.
To ensure privacy, entrances must close properly and the facilities designed in a way to ensure that mothers using the room are not visible from the outside. The room should be only accessible to breastfeeding women and cleaning staff.
Lighting, ventilation and hygiene
Natural light is preferred, but if this is not possible due to space constraints, suitable artificial lighting, ventilation and heating must be provided. The use of air-conditioning is recommended to maintain suitable temperatures.
Cleaning should be done with odourless, food-safe products used exclusively in the breastfeeding room.
It is recommended that the walls, floors and furniture in the room have smooth surfaces, so they can be easily washed and disinfected. Any material that cannot be washed (carpets, fabric curtains or other elements that attract dust) should be avoided.
> Learn more: UNICEF's Breastfeeding Support in the Workplace: Global Guide for Employers
Checklist before returning to work
Try to plan out your workday and incorporate your lactation periods. Set alarms or mark your calendar to serve as reminders and help protect this time.
Try out a trial run of your new schedule just before you return to work. This can help you anticipate challenges and identify solutions.
- Pads or cloths to line your bra to prevent milk stains on your clothes
- Milk storage containers
- Labels and pen
- Insulated cooler with frozen ice/ gel packs.
- If using a breast pump, include materials you will need to clean the device.
Breastmilk can be stored in clean glass or hard BPA-free plastic bottles with tight lids. Storage containers should be cleaned with warm, soapy water. There are also milk storage bags available for freezing breastmilk. Always label the date and time on the storage container with something that will not smudge when wet especially if the milk is to be frozen (e.g. a permanent marker on masking tape).
Collecting and storing breastmilk in the workplace
At work, try to express as often as you would feed your baby and store the breastmilk in sealed containers. Remember to label the container with the date and time of expression.
Keep containers inside a refrigerator or an insulated cooler (such as an insulated bag or ice box) with frozen gel/ice packs. When storing in a refrigerator, keep breastmilk at the back where the temperature is constant. Do not put breastmilk in the door of a refrigerator, because each time the door is opened, the temperature rises a little and can increase the risk of bacterial growth in the milk.
Transporting and storing breastmilk at home
Transport the expressed breastmilk home inside your insulated cooler.
Check with your national health authorities for guidance on milk storage, which can vary by country. As a general approach, WHO and UNICEF recommend:
1. Freshly expressed milk to be consumed by your baby within 24 hours is best stored at the back of the refrigerator where the temperature stays most constant.
2. Breastmilk that will not be used within 24 hours will keep longer if frozen. Freezing in small volumes is more practical to avoid repeated freezing/thawing or wastage.
3. If there is no refrigerator, expressed breastmilk can be stored for about 8 hours at room temperature.
Breastfeed directly whenever you can
Expressing breastmilk in the workplace and directly breastfeeding your baby whenever possible will help you continue making milk. When breastmilk is not regularly removed from your breasts, it may lead to plugged ducts, mastitis and decreased breastmilk supply.
Before going to work and when you get home, it is best to directly feed your baby. Instruct your baby's caregiver to try not to give a full feeding an hour before you reach home. Otherwise, your baby might be full and not want to breastfeed right away.
As much as possible, try not to skip direct breastfeeding at night as this helps to sustain milk production.
Returning to work after the birth of your child isn’t easy and there may be moments when it all feels too much. Remember this time is only temporary and it can take a while to adjust. Finally: Breastfeeding is not a one-woman job – so don’t hesitate to ask for help from family members, friends and colleagues.