Returning to Work: the Breastfeeding Challenge

Mom and baby cuddling

Women's Health Monthly: August 2017

In honor of National Breastfeeding Month, we want to help new and expecting moms take on a challenge that can be especially hard –returning to work after family leave.

"The transition back to work is so tricky for moms," says Joanne Edwards, OHSU child birth and parenting educator. "I hear it all the time. Moms feel they are supposed to work as though they don't have a life at home, and parent like they don't have a life at work."

This daily transition back and forth between two very different roles is tough for all parents. For moms, breastfeeding can add to the challenge.

According to data from the CDC, more than 80 percent of infants are breastfed for some period of time. However, breastfeeding rates drop quickly as parents begin to return to work. Less than 45 percent of infants are exclusively breastfed by the time they're three months old, reflecting how very difficult the transition can be.

"It's important to acknowledge how time-consuming and isolating breastfeeding when you're away from your baby can be," says Edwards. "But the health benefits of breastfeeding, for both mom and baby, make it worthwhile."

Why breastfeed?

Breastfeeding for any length of time at all is healthy for babies, and the benefits continue to grow the longer breastfeeding continues. Breastfeeding has been shown to promote healthy brain development, reduce the risk of SIDS and allergies, and pass along your antibodies to help build your baby's immune system.

"Breastfeeding is also practical," say Edwards. "Your breastmilk adapts to your baby's needs as they grow and breastfeeding serves as both food and comfort. Breastfed babies are likely to get sick less, which means you miss less work."

In addition, breastfeeding has proven health benefits for mom, too. Studies suggest that breastfeeding can reduce risks of heart disease, breast and ovarian cancer, and diabetes later in life. And since breastfeeding actually burns calories, women can lose their baby weight faster.

Return to Work

A new class at the Center for Women's Health, Return to Work is one of many services OHSU has to offer to help moms tackle the challenges of breastfeeding and transitioning back to work. The class includes personalized planning and support in a supportive, small-group setting. Class participants can discuss their unique situation with a skilled facilitator, and each other, and come away with a detailed, written plan for their transition.

"We address everything, from the mom who works in a setting with few other women and feels pressure not to take breaks to pump, to the mom whose office has no private space for lactation," says Edwards.

Tips for the transition

The real benefit of the class is spending time with an expert to work out a plan for your situation. But Edwards does have a few tips to share that most moms find helpful.

1. Prep in advance. Choose your wardrobe for the week in advance to save time on work mornings. Each evening, make sure everything you need for work and to pump is in your bag ready to go.

2. Spare parts. Keep extra bottles, valves, batteries and other pump parts at work, in case you forget or break something.

3. Know how to hand express. If all else fails, knowing how to hand express your milk will keep you comfortable in a pinch. Or keep a hand pump at work, just in case.

4. Know your space. Plan in advance where and when you will pump at work. If your office has a specific area for lactation, visit it in advance.

5. Be ready for leaks. Some women deal with more leaks than others, but when a meeting is running late it can happen to anyone. Wearing dark or patterned tops, keeping a sweater handy, and having plenty of breast pads on hand will make a big difference.

Her most important tip is to be patient with yourself. "Any transition takes several weeks of adjustment," says Edwards. "It will be hard at first, but it will get better. Don't give up!"

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