Before I start to tell you my story about how I combine research and breastfeeding my baby girl, I need to tell you that it is my deepest wish that all parents are respected for whatever choice they make to feed their child. Breastfeeding, exclusive pumping, donor milk, formula… if your choice is what you want, it is the right thing to do for you and your family. In my opinion, choices empower families, and there is no “one size fits all” solution. I hope that in the future policy makers will enable a wide range of choices to accommodate the different needs of different families.
With that said, my goal from the beginning was to breastfeed my baby. I had no idea what this would actually be like, and how this would work out practically as I’d return to work. I’ve been blessed to have great support in the hospital and at home with a midwife to start with breastfeeding, and I was lucky that my husband could bring me the pump I needed when he went on a trip to the USA. I fully realize that I am speaking from a privileged position.
There’s been challenges along the way. My baby wasn’t gaining enough weight in the beginning for us to get cleared to travel with her, and we supplemented with formula for a while. I had mastitis 10 days postpartum. The first two pumps I bought (a manual and electric one) didn’t work very well for me. I never managed to extract a single drop with the manual pump, and the electric one didn’t give me good results at the beginning. I read every possible website out there and watched every youtube video of pumping moms to learn how to make it work. It had to work, as right at the end of my maternity leave, after 12 weeks, I had to travel to a conference, so I had to freeze enough pumped milk to feed my baby. I ended up getting up at stupid-o-clock to pump in the middle of the night, as that was the time when I could pump the largest volume.
Besides these challenges, it has been a beautiful journey. It took me some effort, but by now I have established good routines. Here’s what has helped me to keep breastfeeding my child after returning to work and while I was separated from her for a conference:
1. A good pump and fitting (spare) parts
After struggling with pumps that didn’t work well, getting a double electric pump suitable for pumping several times a day was a life-changer for me. It also came just in time before my trip abroad for a conference. I can’t imagine sitting in between meetings for an hour with a single electric pump. Make sure you have spare parts with you when you travel. Get the right size of flanges. This may be a small (and cheap) detail, but it will make all the difference in terms of comfort.
2. Start pumping early
If you will need to pump at work, don’t wait until your first day back at work to pump. Start pumping early to get used to it, and to start building your freezer stock. Don’t panic if the first few times you pump very little at all. Just relax, and know that you have time to get used to it. It’s a different sensation and your body needs to get used to it.
3. Get help when in doubt
When in doubt, consult a midwife or lactation consultant. In Ecuador, there is less support for breastfeeding working moms, so I read a lot online, asked a friend of mine for advice all the time, and went through a lot of trial and error. Inform about who you can turn to when you have questions, and also inform what your insurance can provide you with. Some insurances in some countries cover the cost of a breastpump.
4. Find out where you’ll pump at work or when traveling
Find out in advance where you will be able to pump. You’ll need a clean space to pump (pumping in a bathroom is uncomfortable and significantly increases the risk for mastitis – nobody should shame you into hiding in the bathroom), somewhere to clean your pump parts, and a fridge or cooler to store the pumped milk. When you travel to a conference, ask if they have a nursing room available. Don’t be afraid to ask – the organizers can’t think of everybody’s needs.
5. Plan your breaks
How often does your baby eat at home? You will have to pump more or less with the same frequency if you are not around your baby. For me, that means pumping every 2 hours, otherwise I will get uncomfortable. Plan your schedule around your pumping breaks, and figure out if you can do something while you pump, for example: replying emails, or reading articles. I credit the fact that our breastfeeding is going well mostly to planning for pumping and pumping for the future. I also *like* being able to plan ahead and calculate how much milk she will need for when I’m away, and steadily working towards building supplies for her.
6. Eat and drink enough
It should be a no-brainer, but the lactation period is not a time for drastic diets. Feed yourself so you can feed your child. It takes 85 kcal to produce 100 ml of breastmilk, so you need your calories. You also need to drink enough fluids. Eat a variety of foods rich in micronutrients to support your body – producing and feeding for your child is hard work, and your body needs all the help it can get.