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How to Pump at Work: Babylist’s Ultimate Guide
Updated on
October 26, 2023

How to Pump at Work: Babylist’s Ultimate Guide

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How to Pump at Work: Babylist’s Ultimate Guide.
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How to Pump at Work: Babylist’s Ultimate Guide

If the idea of pumping at work has you stressed out, you’re not alone. Returning to work while you’re breastfeeding or pumping is likely one of the most overwhelming aspects of new parenthood. From managing the logistics of it all to worrying if your supply will keep up to wondering how you’re possibly going to fit it all in and get your job done, there’s a lot to think about.

You’re also going to want to get your body—and your baby—used to pumping if you’ve been exclusively breastfeeding up until this point. (Note: If you don’t have a breast pump yet, you can get one free or discounted through your insurance with Babylist Health.)

This comprehensive guide covers everything you need to know about how to pump at work. Read it before baby arrives so you’ll know what to expect, or bookmark it to come back to before you return from maternity leave so you’ll know how to prepare.

Set Yourself Up for Pumping Success

First things first: before you head back to the workplace, you’re going to need an efficient breast pump to get the job done. You’re also going to want to get your body—and your baby—used to pumping if you’ve been exclusively breastfeeding up until this point.

Choosing the right pump

There are four main types of breast pumps: hospital-grade, electric, wearable and manual. Each has its own pros and cons and is available in a range of price points to fit different budgets.

Electric and wearable breast pumps are the most common choices for working parents who plan to pump. Which one you choose is based on a variety of different factors. Here’s what to consider:

  • Portability. Will you be hauling your pump to and from work on public transportation, or do you get to your workplace by car? If you’re in the former category, then a bulky, heavy pump may not be the best choice for you. But if you drive to work, it’s less of an issue. The same goes for travel. If your job involves a lot of travel, you may want to consider a lightweight or wearable pump.
  • Power source. Some pumps require a constant power source while others operate on rechargeable batteries. Consider where you’ll be doing the bulk of your pumping and if you’ll have a power source nearby or if you’re going to need a wireless option.
  • Discretion. Wearable pumps have changed the game when it comes to pumping. These types of pumps slip right into your bra and don’t have any cords or wires. They make it much easier to pump discreetly in many types of situations and may be an option to consider if this is important to you. Keep in mind that wearable pumps are pricey, though, and some pumping parents say they aren’t as efficient as more traditional electric pumps.
  • Noise level. Some pumps tend to be louder than others. If you’re concerned about volume, do some research around which pumps are quieter versus those that are on the louder side.

If you plan on pumping for an extended period of time, invest in a powerful, high-quality double electric or wearable breast pump. While manual and lower-priced pumps are fine for infrequent use, pumping on the regular at work demands a durable pump that gets the job done quickly and efficiently. They’ll cost you a bit more but are well worth the investment. These are some of the best breast pumps Babylist users recommend.

You may also want to consider owning two pumps—one to keep at home and one to leave at the office. This will save you the trouble of lugging your pump back and forth to work each day and the stress of worrying that you may leave it behind if you’re ever sidetracked or in a rush. This is definitely the pricier option, but keep in mind that most health insurance plans now cover the cost of one breast pump, so if you have insurance, you won’t have to shell out the cash for two pumps.

When to start pumping

There are two things you’ll want to focus on during your maternity leave if you’re planning on pumping once you return to work: introducing your body to the pump and introducing your baby to the bottle.

It’s best to wait to introduce a pumping session until your milk supply is established, which for most breastfeeding parents happens at around four weeks, according to Courtney Hart, a New York City–based birth and postpartum doula, Certified Lactation Counselor (CLC) and owner of One Sweet World Birth Services.

“Adding that pumping session can give you a bit of peace of mind as you build a small stash. You don’t have to have ounces upon ounces before you go back, however, since each day, you’ll be pumping a few times as well,” she says.

“The whole time I was on mat leave, I pumped at least once if not twice a day and froze the milk so I was able to build a stash by the time I started work. It took some of the pressure off and got my supply up, too,” says Kristin, a mom of two who works in management consulting.

Many pumping parents have success adding a pumping session in the morning since milk production tends to be higher at that time, Hart says. You’ll get more bang for your buck since you may get a bit more milk for the same length of pumping session.

“That said, maybe your pump session fits in best at night, after you’ve put baby down for bedtime. Whatever works best for you is the time of day that you should pump,” she says.

The same time frame—between around four and six weeks—is also ideal for getting your little one used to drinking from a bottle.

“Between four and six weeks is sort of a sweet spot for introducing bottles to [breastfed] babies, when breastfeeding is firmly established enough that they don’t immediately favor a bottle but when they’re still open to a new feeding method. It can be a bit more challenging to introduce bottles to a baby who is exclusively breastfed for months,” she says.

Know Your Pumping Rights at Work

Some pumping parents are fortunate enough to return to a place of employment that’s familiar with the rights of nursing parents and supportive of pumping in the workplace. Yet there are still too many cringe-worthy stories to count—people pumping in bathrooms or supply closets, not being provided ample pumping breaks, and supervisors who are less than encouraging of nursing parents.

“There was a dingy pumping room at my office where I worked after I had my first child,” says Kristin. “I had an office with a door that locked from the outside. I used to close the blinds and lock my door to pump and hope that no one knocked or asked what I was doing. I remember getting some strange looks from some older men in the office as they walked by and saw me locking myself in my office,” she recalls.

The Break Time for Nursing Mothers law requires employers to provide basic accommodations to nursing parents at work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, “federal law requires all employers to provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for her nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk.”

Employers also must provide “a place, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from coworkers and the public, which may be used by an employee to express breast milk.” This law applies to employers with 50 or more employees and applies to hourly as well as some salaried employees. You can learn more details about these laws in this fact sheet.

How does this law translate to real life? Some workplaces spare no expense to accommodate nursing parents. “I switched jobs after I had my second child,” says Kristin. “My new company had a Mother’s Room with a hospital-grade pump. I brought my own tubing and accessories but didn’t have to lug a pump back and forth. The room had a recliner, a phone, a place to plug in your laptop while you worked, a sink and a refrigerator that you could use,” she says.

For others, however, finding a comfortable place to pump may be more difficult. Many workplaces are pressed for space and don’t offer anything close to luxurious pumping conditions. And pumping if you don’t have a desk job presents its own set of unique challenges.

Kim, a science teacher and mom of one, often had to pump in colleagues’ office spaces. Pumping when she was away from the classroom was even more difficult.

“Since I am a teacher, I had to do a few field trips, and that required a ton of prep work,” she says. “I had to skip one trip that was outdoors because there was no location to pump. On one (unfortunately) memorable trip, the college we visited offered me use of a bathroom, but only IF it was free at the time. On that trip, I had to coordinate with my colleagues so that I could literally go home (about a half mile from the college), pump and come back.”

So what should you do if you’re unsure about what pumping at your workplace will look like? First, familiarize yourself with your rights. And don’t hesitate to reach out to your company’s human resources department.

“Employees should notify their employer in advance if they want to pump at work. I recommend that during an employee’s sit-down to review FMLA (the Family and Medical Leave Act, which entitles eligible employees to take unpaid, job-protected leave following the birth of a child) they bring up the potential need and discuss the company’s policy on pumping,” says Nicole, a Director of Human Resources and Recruitment in the healthcare industry.

And if you’re comfortable, don’t be afraid to tell your fellow colleagues that you’re pumping and to talk with them about it—especially if you’re in a non-office setting like a retail environment or a school. “Quite a few colleagues had pumped before, and they’d been the ones who designated which places in each building should be the official pump places, since they were the best,” says Kim.

Get Prepared to Pump at Work

A little prep can go a long way when you’re trying to wrap your head around pumping at work. These are the supplies and accessories you’ll want to round up before you head back to work as a pumping parent.

  • Electric or wearable breast pump. It’s tough to pump at work without…a pump. If you’re bringing your pump from home, make sure everything is in working order and the battery is charged and ready to go if your pump has that option. If your workplace supplies a pump, you may still want to bring your own on day one to have a backup in place just in case.
  • Diaper bag or tote. A roomy diaper bag or backpack, or simply a large tote bag, is a must for hauling your pump and gear to and from work. Make sure it’s large enough to hold everything you need and that it’s comfortable to carry. They also make breast pump bags, if you want something specifically for the pump.
  • Manual pump. A manual pump is a great backup option to have on hand in case your electric pump decides to unexpectedly quit on the job. It’s also perfect for stashing in your purse if you’re ever away from work and need to pump on the go. We recommend keeping one in your desk, locker or wherever you can safely stash something away at your job.
  • Pump parts, including extras. You’ll want at least one set of extra pump parts on hand at all times at work, if not more. For a traditional double electric pump, this includes flanges, connectors (including valves and membranes) and tubing. (These parts will be different if you’re using a wearable pump.) Some parents choose to have a set of parts for every pumping session so they don’t have to deal with washing them until they return home from work.
  • Milk storage bottles or bags. Make sure you have plenty of milk storage bottles and bags to store your milk after you’ve pumped.
  • Cooler bag and ice packs. You’ll need a cooler to keep your pumped milk at the proper temperature when you’re transporting it from work to home. (You can also use a cooler to store your milk if you don’t have access to a fridge at work.) Any type of insulated bottle bag will work along with some ice packs. You can also skip the ice bags and use a bag that pops right into the freezer.
  • Pumping bra. A hands-free pumping bra is a lifesaver if you’re a pumping parent at work. It frees your hands up to do whatever else needs to get done so you can multitask while you pump. You’ll want some extra nursing pads on hand too.
  • Cleaning supplies. If you plan on washing your pump parts at work, buy a bottle brush to keep at your workplace. (We’re partial to this one from OXO Tot; it also doubles as a drying rack.) You’ll also want hand sanitizer and some disinfectant wipes to clean your pumping space as well as a stash of quick clean wipes or microwave sterilizer bags if you need to clean your pump parts and don’t have access to a sink. A few towels or old burp clothes are a good idea too.

Another tip: keep a backup outfit or uniform at your workplace. Pumping can get messy, and having a quick change of clothes on hand just in case is always a good idea.

How to Pump at Work

These are the most commonly asked questions about pumping at work—and the answers.

How many times should I pump at work?

You should pump as many times as your baby would have breastfed if they were with you, according to the lactation consultant we spoke to.

“It’s important to do your best to keep up with the same frequency, as much as possible, so that your body still produces milk based on your baby’s unique needs,” says Hart.

Most parents we spoke with pumped an average of two to three times during an eight- or nine-hour work shift. Keep in mind that this can change as your baby gets older.

“When I first returned after both my maternity leaves, I’d pump three times per day—normally around 10 a.m., 1 p.m. and 4 p.m. By the time both my sons were about 6 months old, I was able to transition to two times per day, which was far more manageable,” says Nicole, a mom from New Jersey who pumped for each of her two sons until they were about 13 months old.

How long should I pump at work?

Expect an average pumping session to last about 30 minutes from start to finish once you factor in setup, pumping and cleanup.

“Per session, you can pump until you don’t see any more milk output—typically 15-20 minutes,” says Hart.

She also suggests nursing immediately before heading out the door for work in the morning and immediately after arriving home.

How do I clean my pump parts at work?

The Center for Disease Control (CDC) has thorough, specific guidelines around how to keep your breast pump clean.

Before each use:

  • Wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds.
  • Inspect your pump to make sure there’s no dirt and check for mold in the tubing, then wipe down the pump with a disinfectant wipe. (You’ll want to pay special attention to this step if you’re using a shared pump.)

After each use:

  • Fill a clean wash basin with soap and hot water and place pump parts inside. Avoid placing your pump parts directly in the sink.
  • Scrub items according to your pump’s cleaning guidelines (most call for soap and water). Use a bottle brush to get into small spaces—but make sure the brush is being used exclusively for washing infant feeding items.
  • Rinse your parts with clean water and allow them to air-dry thoroughly on a clean surface like an unused dish towel or clean paper towel. Don’t rub or pat them dry.

You can also clean your pump parts in the dishwasher and then allow them to air-dry as long as they are marked as dishwasher-safe. (You’ll want to use a heated drying cycle or a sanitizing setting if your dishwasher has one.) Many parents also choose to sanitize pump parts either at the end of each day or a few times each week. You can use boiling water, a bottle sterilizer, a microwave bag or a dishwasher with a sanitize setting. Make sure your pump parts are completely dry before storing them to help prevent mold and keep them in a protected area.

What should you do if these cleaning procedures aren’t possible in your workplace? There are a few workarounds you may need to try.

  • Buy multiple sets of pump parts and use a different set for each pumping session. Wash everything at home after work each day.
  • Try sanitizing wipes and/or microwave sterilizer bags for cleaning in a pinch or if you don’t have access to soap, water and a sink. You’ll still need to do a thorough soap-and-water cleaning at the end of the day, but these products are by far better than nothing if you don’t have other options.
  • If you’re really struggling with cleaning options, talk to your employer. They may be able to provide you with access to a sink on another floor or in another area of your workplace that you’re unfamiliar with.

How do I store breast milk at work?

Freshly expressed breast milk can be stored at room temperature for four to eight hours (ideally closer to three or four) and in an insulated cooler for up to 24 hours. It can be stored in the refrigerator for three to eight days, but ideally for around 72 hours or so. Babylist’s How to Store Breast Milk guide walks you through everything you need to know about safely storing, freezing and thawing breast milk, so you may want to bookmark the guide for future reference.

Most pumping parents we spoke to chose to express milk and store it in either bottles or breast milk storage bags. Storing the milk in a refrigerator is ideal, but if that’s not an option, a cooler with a few ice packs will do the trick until you’re home and have access to a fridge.

“I don’t know what I would have done without my Medela cooler and ice packs. Those things worked so well at keeping everything cold—even for days when I had no access to a refrigerator at work,” says Nicole.

Be sure to label everything clearly, especially if you’re storing your milk in a shared refrigerator.

How do I pump if I don’t work in an office or have an irregular work schedule?

Teachers, healthcare workers, students and people with jobs in other non-office-based industries like food service, beauty and retail have a unique set of challenges around pumping at work.

  • Flexibility around when and where you pump will go a long way in helping you make pumping at work successful. Do you normally pump for 20 minutes but only have 10 in your schedule? Pump anyway—it’s better to get a shorter session in than nothing at all. Try to fit in a longer pumping session the next time if your schedule allows for it.
  • Take advantage of unconventional pumping spaces if you can. Although it’s not ideal, some pumping moms we spoke with who didn’t work in an office preferred pumping in their car either right before their work shift began or on a break if that was an option. Others made spaces like a private dressing room or an office space in the back of a restaurant work. Think about the pumping accessories you may need to make this work like a car adapter, a nursing cover, a wearable pump or one with a rechargeable battery, or even a manual pump if you’re ever in a pinch.
  • Loop your coworkers and your supervisor in on your pumping schedule—and any challenges you may be having—as much as possible. Open communication is the key in achieving a workplace environment that’s supportive of pumping.
  • Are you a pumping student? Check with your school’s student union to see if there are any resources available for parents—they may be able to help you locate a safe and private space to pump. Try to plan your class schedule with at least 30-minute gaps between each class, and try to pump before class to prevent leaking or discomfort in the middle of a lecture or exam. And consider investing in a locker at the campus gym for storage since you’ll be lugging around books plus your pumping supplies.

“Get a pump that you can take with you, but doesn’t show itself off as being a breast pump,” says Amylia, who pumped for her son while getting her degree. “I loved the Medela Pump in Style for exactly that; no one knew I was carrying a breast pump, and there was enough space in the bag for my tablet, notebook and pens. And the extra tote that carried my bottles and ice pack looked exactly like a lunch pail.”

Tips for Pumping at Work

Parents who have been there and done that are the real experts when it comes to pumping at work. These are the best tips that real parents shared with us that helped them navigate pumping while back at work—and kept them sane while doing it.

Set your pumping schedule—and stick to it

This is probably the biggest piece of advice we heard again and again from parents who pumped at work: treat pumping like a meeting that you just can’t miss. Schedule your pumping sessions on your calendar and stick to them.

If you’re in an office environment with a shared calendar, block off the time (you can mark it as “pumping” if you’re comfortable, or simply as a meeting or “personal” if that feels better for you) so your coworkers can’t schedule anything else during that time.

“Be protective of your calendar. Block out the time to pump and don’t move that time. Once you start moving it, your supply will start to go down and you’ll feel off-schedule and uncomfortable,” says Kristin.

If you’re in a non-office environment, talk with your supervisor about setting aside a few blocks of time each day for you to pump.

Talk to other pumping parents

“I talked to another mom who had breastfed at work. She showed me the ropes and walked me through everything, even how to clean the parts. She gave me the lay of the land. Don’t be afraid to ask someone who you admire: how did you get this done? Get all the tips and tricks you can,” says Tara, a lawyer who pumped for both of her children.

Advocate for yourself—and ask for support

Most employers want you to succeed as a pumping parent at work. If you’re comfortable, loop your boss and your team in on the fact that you’re pumping and don’t be shy about asking for support if you need it.

“I was very open about pumping. I openly discussed it with my boss and my coworkers, which meant that they became very comfortable with me saying things like ‘I’m going to be late to our meeting because I have to pump and wash/store,’” says Kim.

Other tips and tricks:

  • Stay hydrated and well nourished throughout the day. This is easy to forget when you’re in the midst of a busy day at work so try to make it a priority.
  • While pumping, look at photos of your baby or watch videos—this can help stimulate milk production. You can also bring along a blanket or an item of clothing with your baby’s scent on it.
  • If your pumping plan involves feeding your baby frozen milk, make sure your baby will drink it first before freezing too much. Frozen breast milk has higher levels of lipase (an enzyme that breaks down the fats in your milk to help baby digest it) and can taste different than fresh milk.
  • Always have a backup plan, whether that means keeping a manual pump on hand just in case or a car charger for your pump if you’re on the road.

Most importantly of all: be gentle with yourself. Feeling the pressure of keeping up with your baby’s demand? Introduce a bottle or two of formula each day. Feeling stressed out and alone? Find other pumping parents you can connect with to commiserate. Pumping at work is no easy feat, and however you end up feeding your baby should be celebrated.

Jen LaBracio

Senior Gear Editor

Jen LaBracio is Babylist’s Senior Gear Editor, a role that perfectly combines her love of all things baby gear with her love of (obsessive) research. When she’s not testing out a new high chair or pushing the latest stroller model around her neighborhood, she likes to run, spin, listen to podcasts, read and spend time at the beach. In her past life, she worked for over a decade in children’s publishing. She lives outside of Chicago with her husband and their two boys, Will and Ben.

This information is provided for educational and entertainment purposes only. We do not accept any responsibility for any liability, loss or risk, personal or otherwise, incurred as a consequence, directly or indirectly, from any information or advice contained here. Babylist may earn compensation from affiliate links in this content. Learn more about how we write Babylist content and review products, as well as the Babylist Health Advisory Board.