By Ali Weatherford

Many people have to go back to work after a too-short maternity leave. That’s unfortunate, and there are huge efforts being made to change laws related to family leave at the federal level, but for now, it’s what we have. It’s a great idea to start thinking about how to take time away from work when you’re thinking about getting pregnant, or at least before your baby comes. Often, employers make the policies pretty clear and simple, but there are still some things to look into and think about.

If you intend to breastfeed beyond your maternity leave, it probably means having to use a pump to express breastmilk while you’re at work, so you’ll want to find out more about your rights as an employee and what that might look like.

Federal Laws about Pumping

By federal law, employers are required to provide a “reasonable break time” and a private space that is NOT a bathroom, for the expression of breastmilk through the first year of your baby’s life. There is no set limit on when and how many breaks you can have, but the law says they can be taken whenever you have the need to express milk. Employers are not required to pay for this time if it’s beyond the standard breaks, although you can use your paid breaks to do this if you choose.

  • Employers are required to provide a place for pumping that is:
  • not a bathroom
  • shielded from view
  • free from intrusions by coworkers and the public
  • available as needed, AND
  • functional for expressing milk

There are some exceptions to this:

  • If the private employer has fewer than 50 employees, and providing these benefits causes “undue” difficulty or financial hardship when considered in relation to the size and resources of that business, they are not subject to this law.
  • If an employee is classified as “exempt”, this law does not apply to them. Most employees are “non-exempt” which means that they are entitled to at least minimum wage and overtime pay when they work more than 40 hours per week. If you are in a job that requires you to make at least the minimum hourly wage, and you are entitled to overtime pay, then you are “non-exempt”. “Exempt” employees usually earn a salary, earn at least $35,568 per year, and are in a position that is administrative, executive, professional, computer, or outside sales. Also, people earning more than $107,432 are considered exempt.
  • If you are exempt, your employer is not required to provide you with pumping breaks, but many employers do offer those benefits to their exempt employees. In Texas, companies may even make a commitment to being a “Mother-Friendly Worksite”. If you’re not in Texas, check to see if there is a similar designation and directory for employers in your state.

Federal law also requires that most health plans cover breastfeeding support which includes supplies and counseling. That means you can most likely get a pump, pumping supplies, and support from a lactation consultant (IBCLC) without paying out-of-pocket. You are also protected by federal law from being fired, demoted, or discriminated against in any way because of lactation. It’s considered a pregnancy-related medical condition and is subject to the same protections as laws supporting pregnancy and other similar medical conditions.

Steps to Take When Considering your Options

  1. Find out what your employer provides for paid and unpaid maternity leave.
  2. Decide whether you can take any unpaid leave and how to go about making that happen. Knowing how long you’ll be away from work is important when planning your breastfeeding and pumping. Things will look different going back to work after one month then they will going back after six months.
  3. Determine whether you are “non-exempt” or “exempt”.
  4. If you are “exempt”, have a discussion with your employer about how they might be willing to work with you to establish a routine and location for pumping. If you are in Texas, check the directory of “Mother-Friendly Worksites”. Your employer might be listed, and if so, you can know it’s likely you’ll be well-supported.
  5. If you are “non-exempt”, find out where you’ll be able to pump and determine whether there will be a refrigerator you can use to store your expressed milk. It’s also a good idea to have a conversation with your employer and co-workers about your plan to express milk during work time.
  6. Look into getting a pump through your insurance company that will be best suited to your pump-at-work situation. For some people, this means getting one that can be used with a battery or one that is small and easy to carry if you have a long walking commute or one that is extra quiet.
  7. Take a pumping class and discuss your situation with a lactation consultant to come up with the plan that will work best for you and set you up for breastfeeding success.

It’s really important to remember that getting help might make a huge difference in how difficult or easy it is for you to continue breastfeeding after going back to work. Pumping can be difficult for many people, but there might be ways to significantly improve what you are doing. Sometimes, people are not using the pump correctly, or maybe they are using pump parts that don’t fit their body correctly, other times it could be that someone doesn’t have a great routine for pumping and just needs to adjust WHEN they pump. There are often simple modifications that can make a big difference.

Prepare for Going Back to Work

Remember that things will change quickly. At first, going back to work will probably be very difficult, and leaving your baby will feel very hard. Most people experience this as an almost impossible thing to do. You want to be with your baby, but you might not have a choice about going back to work. There will probably be a lot of tears…..from you. This is very normal, but everyone will adapt, and things will get easier over time. If your employer allows you to start back part-time and increase your hours gradually or do some of your work from home, that can make the transition easier for many people.

It also might be very hard to adjust to life back at work. You might have a lot of catching up to do, and you might feel behind your co-workers or overwhelmed with work. Your body might still not be fully healed and feeling normal, and you might be sleep-deprived. This can make work feel even more difficult. All of these things combined, in addition to trying to continue breastfeeding, can feel VERY overwhelming. You are not alone. This is a common experience that binds so many new parents, but things do get easier.

As you start to adapt to the new routines, you’ll probably begin to notice that your time gradually opens up too. Your milk supply will stabilize, and your baby will need fewer feedings every day. You’ll be able to take fewer pumping breaks while still maintaining a good milk supply, and then you may even eventually be able to stop pumping altogether while at work and just breastfeed or pump while at home.

There’s so much to think about while you’re pregnant, and while this can feel like a lot to have to consider right now, it’s a really smart thing to do and will probably save you a lot of frustration later.

To learn more about pumping, be sure to sign up for our live, online class Pumpity Pump: Pumping Milk for Your Baby.

Our articles are not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.

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