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Equity Resources, Productivity Strategies, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Nov 2, 2022

A teacher’s guide to pumping at work

By Catherine Eisel-Elder

A teacher’s guide to pumping at work

By Catherine Eisel-Elder

If you’re planning to return to work after parental leave and want to continue feeding your baby with your milk, you’re going to have to figure out pumping…and there’s a lot of logistics to consider.

I have breastfed two children until we mutually decided to end the relationship, and I pumped through a full calendar year with both of my kids being fed only breastmilk (and then table food, when developmentally appropriate).

I was lucky to be able to nurse my kids directly when I was with them–but I have several friends who were exclusive pumpers for various reasons. I have also guided friends and colleagues through the process, and it’s become a passion of mine–making pumping feel doable in a profession where it seems impossible.

A few caveats up front:

  • For the sake of widest recognition, I will use the term “nursing” or “breastfeeding” throughout this article where applicable. I want to explicitly state that I know that there are some who are uncomfortable with many terms that are traditionally associated with breastfeeding and may prefer chestfeeding or bodyfeeding. My choice of vocabulary is not for any other reason than that’s what the majority of people will recognize.
  • I am also not going to address things like safe storage and increasing production, as there are plenty of better-educated sources for that information.
  • I am NOT pushing breastfeeding as the best or only choice in this article. I believe fed is best, and formula is a modern miracle that should be used whenever needed or wanted. But for those for whom nursing is a desire/priority, I want to empower you to know that while it can be tricky, it is doable.
  • I am NOT a medical professional, and none of this should be taken as medical advice. Always defer to what your medical care team advises.

I will organize this into two primary sections: the first, dealing with your mindset going into pumping while working in a school; the second being “hacks,” tips, and tricks I’ve learned in my journey, as well as those generously shared by colleagues and friends in person and in online teaching and breastfeeding communities I asked.

Healthy mindsets around pumping at school as a teacher

If you’re like many who work in schools, you got into this profession because you care deeply about people and your work, and have some tendencies towards selflessness and perhaps even martyrdom (guilty here).

The first, and the most important, thing you need to do is evaluate and adjust your expectations of yourself and the process.

Give yourself grace and space to think about what you actually want, versus what you may be feeling pressured to do (or not do!). Some of your friends or colleagues may have HATED pumping; some may have loved it. Some may have had great support, or none at all. You have to take your own context into consideration and be really honest with yourself.

Pumping and nursing are important and time-consuming jobs, and our society has so much guilt and pressure built into the decision to nurse or not, as well as whether to maintain that by feeding your baby pumped milk. Here are some considerations to take into account:

  • Figure out what you will need (space, time, coverage) and communicate that with your administration as soon as possible. Don’t be afraid to advocate for yourself, and don’t back down at the first sign of pushback. Once you know your approximate return to work date, work with your administration to figure out a coverage plan if needed (or present one to them that you work out with teammates and/or friends at work–they will likely appreciate the effort and not being asked to do something else, and allow you the flexibility to figure it out).
  • Ask for help. Tell your teammates or collaborating staff members your plans and needs, and anticipate that there will be some people who won’t like your plans and needs. That is not your responsibility. This is one time when working in a female-dominated profession works in your favor — many school workers are caregivers to children outside of work, and either have experience trying to breastfeed or understand the huge commitment it is to pump while working. Ask for help. If you don’t have a dedicated space, ask someone who does if you can use it during down times. Advocate for a space that isn’t a bathroom — you deserve to pump in a comfortable, safe, and hygienic space. If you need a little extra time to pump at lunch or during recess, ask a teammate to take or pick up your class to give you those extra couple of minutes. Ask for people to accommodate your needs in creative ways (see suggestions below in the “Hacks, Tips, and Tricks” section if you need ideas). This is a lot of work, and it is valuable work, but it is almost impossible to do without a good support system.
  • Set and maintain your boundaries. If you have said that you will need to pump at x time, and someone asks you to break that “just this once”–stand firm. If your coworkers or administration pressure you to stop pumping before you’re ready, or complain that you’re getting “extra” time, or whatever–remind them that this is a medical need and you have both legal and human rights to feed your baby in the way that is best for you and them.
  • On that note — know your rights. Breastfeeding and work pumping laws vary from state to state; be sure to research yours and communicate that you know those rights. Involve your HR or union as needed if you encounter resistance.
  • Find others who are pumping or have pumped. Having a community that is or has been “there” is invaluable in the mental load of balancing a demanding career and a demanding period of your life as a parent. Just having someone to text when you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed or excited about your pumping needs and process is a huge addition to your support crew.
  • Think about if you want to use this time to work, or NOT — either is fine! For me, I tended to use the time to catch up on emails, write lesson plans, and do other tasks I could do on my computer, so I wasn’t making more work for myself during non-contract hours. For some people, however, they need pump time to be “down” time, where they can relax to allow a good letdown. There’s no right or wrong answer. You may want to focus more on the pumping part until you are comfortable with it, then move to a more productive time–or not!
  • If you are having someone cover your class or post, be sure to give yourself enough time to get to your pumping space (if it’s not in your own space), get set up, have a solid pumping session, and clean up. Stress decreases milk production, which is the opposite of the goal. Ask your coverage to give you a 5-minute buffer on either side of your planned pumping session to account for these transitions so you’re not feeling rushed.
  • It can be helpful to reframe this as a medical need, both for your baby and for you. Of course, if this is your family’s plan for feeding your baby, then your pumping time is not optional–it is how you are getting your child’s sustenance. You can also get a clog or mastitis if you are unable to pump on a regular schedule and fully express your milk; these can cause illness and extreme discomfort. Keeping pumping framed as a medical necessity can help you feel more comfortable advocating for yourself and being clear and direct with your needs.
  • Finally: give yourself grace. Not everyone responds well to a pump, and there’s no way to know until you try. If pumping is causing you excessive levels of stress, or your milk production drops, or you just don’t want to anymore, give yourself the space to change your mind. It is not a failure of any kind. Again, formula is a medical marvel, and if you need to use it, either to supplement breastmilk or as the primary or only source of your child’s feeding: that. is. great. You are an excellent parent no matter how you end up feeding your child. Fed is best. You are a person, too, and your health and happiness are also important to your child’s life.

Hacks, tips, and tricks for teachers pumping at school

Here’s the nitty-gritty of what to actually DO and PREPARE for pumping while working in schools. You’ve got your pumping schedule worked out, any coverage needs taken care of, and your pump, but how do you actually make this work?

Here are some hacks, tips, and tricks that either I or a colleague or friend that I have talked to in person or on social media teacher and/or breastfeeding groups can share:

  • Consider using a company like Aeroflow or Acceleron to help you know which pump(s) are covered by your insurance; these companies can also help you know if your insurance covers replacement consumable parts (like duckbills or membranes) that wear out over time. Using flexible spending accounts is another way to help pay for spare parts.
  • Don’t feel like you have to start pumping right away (if your baby is latching and feeding at the breast without issues — again, I’m not a medical professional!). However, a week or two before you plan to return to work, get acquainted with the pump, practice putting it together and taking it apart, and so on. One ‘hack’ I learned that served me very well was to pump on one side while the baby nursed on the other–this helped my body associate the feeling of a letdown with the sensation of the pump, so when I was pumping without the baby later, that connection was established. This is also a great way to start building up your “stash.”
  • Get a second set of all removable parts — flanges, tubing, bottles, chargers/power cords, adapters, rubber/silicone membranes or duckbills, bottles, and so on. There is literally NOTHING worse than getting all hooked up and realizing you don’t have a tube to connect to the pump. I left my second set of parts at school, and just washed and sanitized them after school, leaving them to dry overnight. It’s one less thing to have to remember to bring with you.
  • Get a cooler that fits the pump system bottles/containers that you are using, and the specially-designed reusable ice packs. Of course, you can use things you already have, but these help ensure that your precious expressed milk will be less likely to tip over, fall out, or leak, and will keep it cold until you can get it home.
  • Set yourself up for success with a system for remembering to bring bottles to and from work, cleaning and sterilizing parts, etc.: Post-its in strategic places, setting everything out the night before, phone alarms, whatever works for you.
  • Store your pump parts in the fridge in a large Ziploc bag or plastic food storage container between pumping sessions. This will save you a LOT of setup and break down time during any midday sessions.
  • If you don’t have access to a personal fridge, see if someone in the building does and who can share. Even a small dorm-sized fridge can usually hold a larger food storage container with parts and a few pumped bottles of milk.
  • Measure your nipple size and get appropriately-sized flanges for your pump. This can GREATLY increase your output, and many people are not best fit by the default flanges that come with the pump. Look online for guides on how to measure and what your nipple should and shouldn’t look like in the flanges.
  • Try using nipple cream on either your nipple or the flange for a better seal. The better the seal, the more effective the pump is.
  • Consider wearing a nursing cover while you are pumping if you are concerned about being walked in on, or if you plan to pump during meetings. This can also help you not stress about the amount you are pumping, as stress decreases your letdowns and output (just be sure to check in on the bottle’s fill after a few minutes if you’re a high producer or have a fast letdown–that’s not a fun surprise!)
  • Get creative with your options for when to pump. Think about if there are ways for you to attend meetings virtually if they coincide with your regular pumping times.
  • Bring one of your baby’s worn pajamas or onesies to smell and look at pictures and videos of them. This can help trigger a letdown.
  • If you don’t have a space of your own, see if you can hang thick curtains or set up a private-ish space, and then use a nursing cover. One suggestion was to put your “mom working — do not enter” type sign over the keyhole of your pumping space, so that people with key access don’t ignore other posted signs. There are also many people who love wearable cups/pumps — look into it if you’re interested!
  • If you have to go on field trips, look into a manual pump that pairs with your electric pump–these often share parts, so you can use some of your spare parts for this. Plan to ask for chaperones or other staff to help cover you to go pump, even if it’s only to relieve discomfort. Learn how to express milk manually for if you’re ever in a pinch.
  • Dress to facilitate pumping. I wore a nursing bra every day with a spaghetti-strap tank over it, then a shirt over that. Then, I could pull up my shirt and pull down the top of the tank without feeling like I had to get completely undressed to pump. Additionally, look for a string-style nursing bra — this can clip on over your clothes and holds flanges in place so you can still pump more hands-free without having to change into a full pumping bra.
  • Try not to stress about supply fluctuations — your body will go through lots of stages. Look into “hands on pumping” and supplements for when your ovulation and menstrual cycles start up again to help combat some of these fluctuations.
  • Look up “power pumping” and/or pump an extra session on the weekends if you need to have enough supply for the coming days.
  • Find microwave steam-sterilization bags. This made cleaning parts so much easier — I would wash my parts at the end of the day (having put them in the fridge between sessions using a large plastic food storage container), then use the steam sterilizer bag to sterilize and let the parts dry overnight. I took parts home on weekends to do a deeper sterilization at home, too.
  • Take care of yourself! Eat regular meals and snacks and keep yourself hydrated. Have a stash of easy-to-grab snacks and water and explain to students, as needed, why you’re snacking.

There’s a lot to take in here, but the main point is this: if you want to pump and work in schools, it IS possible. It takes a little creativity, a lot of persistence and determination, teamwork and support systems, and some trial and error … but you can do this.

And no matter how you feed your baby — you are doing such a great job, and this period won’t last forever.

Congratulations, and happy pumping!

Catherine Eisel-Elder

Catherine Eisel-Elder grew up in central Georgia and currently works in the metro Atlanta area. She has worked with kids in different capacities since she was 14 years old. Her passions in teaching are learning more about making classrooms and...
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