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April 26, 2016

Allyson Downey, an entrepreneur and parent of two, wanted to share everything she learned as a working mom—so she wrote a step-by-step guide for other career-driven mothers: Here's the Plan: Your Practical, Tactical Guide to Advancing Your Career During Pregnancy and Parenthood. In this adapted excerpt from her new book, Allyson shares her advice for breast-pumping at the office.

I’m not going to wax poetic here about the wonders of breastfeeding. (There are wonders! It can be magical and blissful. You should definitely try to do it if you can. But if you can’t, you’ll get no judgment from me.)

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Breast pumping, though, is another story entirely. But in most cases, especially at the beginning, pumping while at work is what allows you to continue breastfeeding. (You need to do it to maintain your supply and also not to explode.) Pumping also, obviously, produces milk that you can give to a caregiver to feed your baby, which for some women mitigates their anxiety about being separated from their baby. There’s some consolation in pumping, like, if I can’t be with my baby, at least I can do this for her.

Still, that doesn't make it easy. If you're struggling with balancing breastfeeding with working, know that you're not alone.

What You Need to Know About Pumping at Work

There are a few things you can do in advance to make the process a little more manageable.

Before you go out on leave, you should ask about pumping facilities, so if they’re inadequate, your employer has time to come up with something better. Your employer is required to provide a private space where you can pump that is not a bathroom. You need a door that locks, and it can’t have glass walls. (You would think that would be a given, but no.)

If your company’s breastfeeding policy—or physical space—is inadequate, familiarize yourself with your state’s laws.

Here are a few basics you should know that can improve your own experience:

The Basics You Should Have in the Office

Ideally, before you go out on maternity leave, scope out the space your office has allocated for pumping mothers and look for the things on this list. If they aren't available, try asking for them:

  • A private enclosed space with a locking door (any windows should have shades or opaque glass).
  • A built-in sign that can be adjusted to read that the room is either in use or available. (Trust me: This will be taken much more seriously than will a taped-up handmade sign.)
  • A conveniently placed electrical outlet.
  • A comfortable chair.
  • Easy access to a sink, microwave, and refrigerator. (Ideally, these things will actually be in the room! If not, see if your employer will buy a mini fridge and compact microwave that you can use for sterilizing parts.)
  • A scheduling system—if the room will be used by others. (Shared Outlook or Google calendars can be great for this.)
  • Decent Wi-Fi reception and a phone line.
  • A company-provided hospital-grade pump. (Though you should expect to bring your own pump parts, note that some companies will purchase the pump parts for new moms, so be sure to ask.)
  • A mirror, so you can check your appearance (no visible spills!) before leaving.
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Some other nice-to-haves in that space:

  • A basket or box of disposable nursing pads.
  • A wet wipes dispenser, or paper towels and cleaning solution for any spills.
  • Cubbies or drawers where women can leave their pumps and other equipment.
  • A water cooler or water pitcher.
  • Healthy snacks (for low-blood-sugar pumping sessions).

Your company has no way to know what you need unless you tell them—so ask. Some of these are “luxuries,” but all of them will make your day-to-day life easier, which will make your work life more productive.

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How to Pump at Work Like a Pro

I could fill a book with guidance on pumping at work. But here are a few of the best tips I have heard from other women in your shoes:

1. Double up on pump parts.

Instead of cleaning everything between sessions, you can bring home two or three sets of flanges and bottles and throw them in your dishwasher overnight.

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2. Consider doubling up on pumps.

Lugging a pump to and fro every day makes it hard to feel like anything but a milk machine. If you’re pumping at home as well, borrow the base unit from a friend who is no longer pumping or buy yourself a second pump. Alternatively, if there are other nursing moms, see if any want to split the cost of renting a hospital-grade pump.

3. Put everything in the fridge.

You can get away with skipping washing up if you put your flanges and other pump parts in the fridge between sessions. One mom told me that she bought a mini fridge for her office so she could easily store pump parts there.

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4. Pick up some microwaveable steam bags.

You put all of your parts in, add 2 ounces of water, seal the bag, and microwave it for three minutes. (Try the Medela brand or the ones that Dr. Brown’s sells.)

5. Buy a hands-free pumping bra.

One mom on wrote, “If you think you don’t need one of these, try sitting for 15 minutes with your hands on your boobs.”

6. Wear a nursing cover while you pump, in case you are walked in on.

If you’re in a locked room, this is less of an issue, but I’ve heard some horrible stories about unwelcome walk-ins. It’s still awkward, but you’re at least preserving a little modesty.

7. Be prepared for some serious spills and leaks.

Keep wet wipes, extra nursing pads, and a large Ziploc bag in your pumping bag or desk. Keep a whole extra outfit at work as an insurance policy. (It’s like an umbrella: If you have it, you’ll never need it.)

8. Block out time on your calendar now for pumping.

Set recurring calendar items for every day, two or three times a day. You can always adjust them, but this way you can aim to schedule your day around your pumping rather than fitting pumping into your day.

9. Choose pumping-friendly clothing that doesn't require you to strip half-naked.

That means button-down shirts rather than sheath dresses. Anything designed for nursing also offers easy access for pumping.

10. If your commute includes a long car ride, consider pumping while driving.

You can buy a car adapter for your pump, and with a hands-free bra and a nursing cover over it, no one would know you’re pumping.

11. Plan ahead for client meetings or anything else that will bring you off-site.

Ask in advance if they have space where you can pump. Send an email to someone there who you feel comfortable with, explaining that you have a new baby and will need some space to pump. If they don’t have a designated pumping space already, they’ll appreciate the advance notice so they won’t have to scramble when you show up.

12. If you're traveling, use a Thermos to transport cold milk home.

As long as the milk is already cold when you transfer it to the Thermos, it’ll stay cold for up to 24 hours. I transported a gallon of milk home on an airplane in two “beer growler” Hydro Flasks. It’s a lot easier than messing with ice and a cooler.

And if you're pumping in an airport, some airline lounges will have a front area with semiprivate chairs where people presumably make Very Important Phone Calls. Even if they won’t let you into the full club if you’re not a member, they will likely let you use this little front area.

13. If you're staying at a hotel, call ahead of time.

Ask if you can have a small fridge with a freezer in your room; if you get any pushback, tell them it is for medical liquids. Also, ask if you can store something in their restaurant kitchen freezer in case the in-room freezer is lukewarm (which it will be, 50 percent of the time). One woman told me she wound up with a room upgrade when she requested a fridge!

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Allyson Downey
Allyson Downey

Allyson Downey is an entrepreneur, writer, and parent who has built a career on the power of trusted advice. In 2013, she launched weeSpring, a Techstars-backed startup that helps new and expecting parents collect advice from their friends about what they need for their baby. weeSpring has received accolades from TechCrunch, Mashable, CNBC, and the Daily Mail, and it was heralded as “Yelp for baby products” by InStyle magazine.

Allyson has an MBA from Columbia Business School, an MFA from Columbia University's School of the Arts, and a BA from Colby College. She serves on the board of Democracy Prep Public Schools, one of the country's top charter management organizations, and lives in Boulder with her husband and two children.