Recently, there were a couple of articles in the news talking about how breast feeding is not free at all, because women who breastfeed longer than 6 months earn significantly less, even five years after their baby was born, compared to women who breastfeed shorter than 6 months or women who formula feed their infants. It turns out that this difference in earnings is mostly because women who breastfeed longer than 6 months work a lot less than the other groups. In other words, women who (have to) go back to work sooner apparently have a hard time breastfeeding past 6 months.
To me breastfeeding is like walking; you do it because you can. And if you can’t, there are alternatives like using a wheelchair. However, very few people use a wheelchair if they are able to walk just because it is more convenient. That’s not to say that breastfeeding is easy: it’s a learned skill and the fact that we rarely ever see people nurse their babies makes it harder to learn. The same holds true for pumping milk; even though there are some great resources online, when you have to do it yourself you’ve probably never seen someone else pump milk, and perhaps you don’t even have women nearby to ask questions. That’s why I decided to write up what has worked for me over the past months.
Materials and methods
It’s very important to have a good double sided electric breast pump. I have the Medela pump in style , but if I’d have to choose again I would probably go for the Medela Freestyle, since it’s weighs a lot less, which is nice if you go to a conference. Save your receipt, because breast pumps can be tax deductible. The advantage of the black signature Medela bags is that it’s also an easy way to come into contact with other pumping moms who recognize your bag (yes, this happened to me multiple times). It is important that your breast shields fit well; you can ask a lactation consultant for advice. I also have one of these, so that I can pump hands free.
Before going back to work it is important that 1) your baby can drink from a bottle and 2) you have familiarized yourself with your breast pump. To do this, I started pumping one feed in the evening when BlueEyes was 6 weeks old (apparently there’s a window between 4-8 weeks when it’s best to teach babies to drink from a bottle. I have no idea whether that is true but it worked for us.) and Dr. BrownEyes would give him the bottle. I noticed that it takes some practice to pump a decent amount of milk, so don’t worry if you don’t pump a lot the first time. It is also nice to have about a week’s supply of milk in the fridge before you go back to work, so that if pumping doesn’t go well because you’re too stressed in that first week, at least you don’t have to worry about having too little milk to feed your baby. I built a supply in the freezer by giving BlueEyes a little bit less milk in the evening than the amount I pumped (don’t worry about the baby, he will drink whatever he needs during the night). If that doesn’t work: your supply is highest in the morning, so alternatively you can nurse your baby on one breast and then pump the other to build up your freezer stash. Also, make sure to figure out ahead of time where you can pump. I realize that having a clean room and a fridge available is a luxury, and that that’s probably why more higher educated women continue to breast feed, but no one should be afraid to ask for this. In some countries it is a right for women to pump milk for their baby during work hours.
So for the past 6 months I have been pumping milk at work for BlueEyes. Until a couple weeks ago I religiously pumped for about 15 minutes at 10AM and 1PM every day. This fit very well with my experiments, which I think is part of why it worked so well for me. I would cut brain slices, and while those were incubating I would pump the first time, and when I was done with my recording experiment I would pump the second time. I have two sets of breast shields, so I don’t have to bother about washing them in between. I pumped about 200-250 ml (6-9 oz) in total, and because BlueEyes drinks a bit more, I would also pump in the morning after I nursed him. In total I pumped about 300 ml (10 oz) and that’s exactly what he drank in daycare. Being a post-doc, I obviously don’t have my own office, but our department has an empty office that the pumping women can use to pump milk. Now that BlueEyes is eating solids and I have the feeling that my supply is pretty stable, I usually pump once or sometimes twice at work (my total yield is still about 250-300 ml per day).
What can you do when you are not pumping enough milk for your baby?
Your milk supply is a matter of supply (duh) and demand, so the first thing to do is pump more often or try to get multiple letdown reflexes during one pumping session. Also, make sure you empty your breasts well, because that will let your body know that more milk is needed. What I would sometimes do if my supply was getting low, was to ‘cluster pump’ at night. After BlueEyes had gone to bed I would pump according to the following schedule (pump 7 min – rest 7 min – pump 5 min – rest 5 min – pump 3 min – rest 3 min – pump 1 min). This did not yield a lot of milk at the time of pumping, because I had just nursed BlueEyes to sleep, but it does give a pretty good boost for your milk supply.
If this doesn’t work sufficiently, you can take various herbs, teas or foods to increase your supply . I’ve personally never tried that, but I've heard it works.
What can you do when it takes you very long to pump?
To me, the time it takes to pump depends for the most part on how long it takes me to get a letdown reflex. Some people like to look at pictures or movies of their baby to speed this up, but I usually just take a couple deep breaths (at home it even helps me to picture the empty office I usually pump in). However, if you still have problems getting a letdown reflex, and therefore need a long time to empty your breasts, you can consider using an oxytocin nasal spray.
I wrote this post to share my experience and to show that it is very possible to breastfeed for at least 6 months and work. Even though I couldn’t believe it at first, breastfeeding does get better and more fun and much less painful (even not painful at all) after 6 months.
Disclaimer: I’m not a lactation consultant or any other type of medical professional. However, feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions.