It can be really stressful when you’re sitting in the lactation room and you realize that you’re not pumping enough breastmilk at work for your baby to eat the next day. Here’s how you can identify what might be causing this, and what adjustments you can make to pump more milk.
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Two Common Pumping at Work Milk Supply Issues
Before you start buying supplements or loading up on nursing teas, there are two things that you should look at in case they are the underlying cause of you not pumping as much as you’d like. The first is your pumping schedule, and the second is getting your milk to letdown quickly (and more than once).
1. Pumping Schedule: Are you pumping often enough and for enough?
It’s important to make sure that you’re pumping often enough and long enough. Removing milk frequently and consistently is the most important thing you can do for your milk supply.
How often should you pump?
This depends a bit on a) how old your baby is when you go back to work and b) how long you’ll be at work.
The younger your baby, the more often you may need to pump. Additionally, if you work a 12 hour shift you’d obviously need to spend more time pumping at work than if you work for 6 hours.
If your baby is on the younger side (2-6 months), then I would aim to pump three times for 15-20 minutes in a standard 8 hour workday if you can make that work. (I know it can be difficult in some jobs, but that is what I would shoot for.)
If your workday is shorter or longer or your baby is older, you may want to adjust as follows:
- If your workday is shorter, you can adjust down to 1 or 2 sessions, depending on how long you’re there.
- If your workday is longer, you may want to pump 4 times (or more) while you’re at work.
- If your baby is older (6-12+ months), you may be able to do fewer sessions, but I would try to make the total amount of time you spend pumping about the same. So, aim for about 45 minutes to an hour in a 8 hour day, just split among one or two sessions instead of three.
Having a good pumping schedule is key to keeping your milk supply up. Much more info on pumping schedules at work (including ideas for nurses and teachers) here.
What if You’re too busy to pump at work?
Even if you have a job that makes pumping relatively easy, things can still come up that make pumping difficult.
Maybe your manager schedules you for a meeting at a time that you need to pump. Or maybe you have deadlines and it’s just really hard to get away.
Depending on the situation, you might be able to get a little creative about how you get your pumping sessions in to keep your milk supply up. Here are some ideas:
- If getting away to pump while you work is hard, but you can pump on your commute, try to get longer sessions in on your way to and from work. (Here’s how to do it safely.)
- If you only have 10 minutes to pump, go ahead and pump rather than skip the session completely.
- If you’re in a situation where you aren’t always in the same location and it can be difficult to find a place to pump, bring a hand pump and use that wherever you can get a little privacy.
- If you are in a job where you occasionally have to sit down and work on a laptop, consider whether you can work while you pump using a hands-free bra rather than taking a break.
There is only so much you can do, and I don’t mean for this list to push you into feeling guilty for not pumping when it’s impossible. These are just intended to be some creative ideas you can build on if you’re stumped about how to get pumping sessions in.
2. Getting Letdowns in a Timely Fashion
A letdown occurs when your milk ducts release milk from your breasts. You might have noticed that when you pump, milk dribbles out at first, and then after a few minutes starts to spray. This spraying is called a letdown.
Difficulty with getting letdowns can be one of the biggest issues for moms that pump at work for a few reasons:
- In many cases, your time is limited because you have to get back to work. This means that the longer it takes you to get a letdown, the shorter the amount of time you have to actually express milk.
- Letdown is a conditioned response, and when you start pumping at work, you aren’t used to pumping in that environment. Additionally, if you are a nursing mom (as opposed to an exclusive pumper), you may be conditioned to let down in response to your baby rather than to your breast pump.
How to get a letdown faster
So how to get a letdown more quickly, so that you don’t spend all of your time in the lactation room trying to get one? A few things that you can experiment with are:
- Try using a warm compress before you pump, as heat tends to helps stimulate letdowns.
- See if vibration helps you get a letdown. You can try it with an electric toothbrush to see if that works for you, and if so, consider investing in a lactation massager.*
- Relax as much as possible and try to get yourself as comfortable as possible. Stress can inhibit letdowns, so try to go to your happy place while you pump. Listen to music you like on some headphones, bring a blanket if it’s cold in the lactation room, etc. If you tend to get concerned about the amount that you pump, consider covering the bottles with a nursing cover or baby sock so you can’t see them.
If you are a nursing mom, you can also try looking at a video of your baby or maybe bring in something that smells like your baby, and see if that helps.
(*Note: LaVie makes two lactation massagers – a smaller one with just vibration and a warming massager that has heat AND vibration. They are both super helpful – use the code EPUMP on their website for 10% off!)
Getting a SECOND Letdown
Depending on how long you have to pump, you may be able to get a second letdown. (I found that I usually got 1-2 letdowns in a 15 minute pumping session, and 2-3 in a 20-30 minute one.)
What is a second letdown? After a while you might notice that the milk stops spraying and returns to a dribble – but that doesn’t mean there’s no more milk in your breasts! If you keep pumping for a bit, or stop and start again, your milk might let down AGAIN. I usually found that I got about 1/4-1/2 of what I had pumped in my first letdown in my second letdown.
When your milk starts to dribble out again, if you have time, consider putting your breast pump back in letdown or massage mode for 5 minutes or so and see if your milk starts spraying again. (If it does, switch it back to expression mode to maximize the amount you pump.)
Just pumping for a little longer – after you thought you were empty – can make a big difference in how much you pump at work.
Ways to Pump More Milk at Work
What if neither of these is the underlying issue? If you’re not having any issues getting your pumping sessions in and you’re able to get your milk to letdown quickly, here are a few other things that you can try.
Try Hand Expression
If you mostly nurse your baby and he has been growing just fine – but you’re not pumping enough at work – the issue is often not your supply, but how your body is responding to the pump.
If you are, you could add hand expression to your routine at work to see if it helps you get more overall. For example, you might find that you can do hand expression at the beginning of a session to get a letdown quickly, and then switch to pumping to actually express the milk. Or you might find that pumping for 10 minutes and then hand expressing for 5 minutes works well for you.
If you have a manual pump, you can also try that in addition to hand expression. Some women seem to have more luck with these pumps than electric pumps.
While you pump, do “hands-on pumping,” or breast compressions.
Breast compressions just mean moving your hands around your breast while you pump and squeezing or massaging the milk out of your milk ducts. This makes pumping faster and more effective, and can help you get more milk quickly.
Replace Your Pump Parts
If you’ve been back at work for awhile and haven’t replaced your pump parts, try doing that.
More information on how often each part needs to be replaced is available here, but the most important piece is the valve membrane or duckbill valve. I have been shocked at the difference a new valve can make it suction – often the loss of suction is so gradual that you don’t realize it’s happening until you replace it.
While there’s no research about this, and no one knows exactly WHY it works, many women have found that they are able to pump a few extra ounces when they eat oatmeal for breakfast.
(I did an experiment on myself once and it worked for me; I also did an unscientific poll on instagram and 62% of women thought it helped them.)
Any kind of oatmeal will work. If you don’t like the taste of normal oatmeal (I don’t) you can try overnight oats.
Nursing Teas and Supplements
You can also try drinking nursing teas or taking supplements in order to increase your milk supply.
How Much Breastmilk Do You Need to Pump at Work?
The amount that babies will take varies considerably. For reference, I generally brought in four 4-5oz bottles and sometimes got one bottle back, meaning that my baby took 12-20 oz while I was away. (I realize this is a wide range; a lot depends on the baby, whether they are eating solids, whether they are waking up at night to eat, etc.)
It’s not uncommon for working moms to be a little shocked with how much milk their baby is taking at daycare. It can be stressful to try to keep up.
(I’ve had this happen will all three of my kids, the one that I exclusively pumped for and the two I nursed.)
Consider asking your childcare provider if they are familiar with paced bottle feeding and providing them with information about it, as it might help.
I hope this information is helpful when you’re not pumping enough at work. Let us know if you have any other tips or questions in the comments!