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Mama, pumping is hard... you can do hard things

Photo Credit: Brian Smeets, Smeets Studios


At an Annerley drop-in session the midwife-led topic was returning to work. Tamara said, “Almost no mum is ready to return to work after ten weeks. But almost all mums are ready by the time their baby is one.” Truth: almost everyone’s return-to-work readiness falls on this spectrum between ten weeks and one year. Whether you are dreading a too-soon return, or feeling excited about getting your work self back, this guide will get you pumping up a storm in no time.

For many working mums in Hong Kong, the return to work when their baby is as young as eight weeks old comes around heartbreakingly quickly. First time mums often don’t realise how quickly this time will disappear, and with the dreaded date looming it might seem like there is so much to do: fill your freezer with milk, train your baby to drink from a bottle, get them used to napping with the caregiver, and so on.

Here's our 10-point guide to take the stress out of pumping...

... So you can relax and enjoy every pre-work minute with baby

The Full Freezer Myth

Thank social media for this one; the proud mama shares her astonishingly full, perfectly filed and labelled freezer stash online and instantly we all feel like pumping underachievers by comparison. The reality is, your body produces the perfect amount of milk for your baby to drink while you are at work; all baby needs for one day is the milk you pumped the day before. It’s reassuring to have some in the freezer in case of spills, forgetfulness (hello leaving the milk at work), the dreaded return of your period; but there is no need to invest in a dedicated freezer and fill it up with dozens and dozens of bags of milk, despite what you might see on Instagram. Feed your baby, not your freezer.

The Haakaa (or other suction-based pumps)

More about actual pumps later, but this little silicone wonder is a returning mother’s friend. If you pop it on the other boob while you’re feeding, you can gather as much as 60ml or more each time. If you do this a few times a day, you can easily build a small freezer stash without pumping till you absolutely have to.

It’s a good idea to switch your baby onto that side after you’ve used it, so they can drain the breast

completely and signal to your breasts to make more milk. If you feel your baby is still not full, you can switch sides as often as your baby needs, and this again is an excellent signal to the breasts to step up production.

You can even nurse again soon after, again with the Haakaa on, and your supply will soon regulate to

satisfy both your baby and your pump!

Some women who have used this brand report loss of suction after some months of use; I’m on the lookout for this but after ten months of daily use mine still clings on pretty well. The biggest danger now is a flying foot or thrashing arm dislodging it, so I hold it in place with one hand.

Bottle Refusal

The other main stress that mums face before their return to work is bottle refusal. Then starts the quest to try every brand of bottle, and every conceivable configuration of when, where and by whom the bottle is offered.

Naturally it is worrying to think about your baby not drinking much while you’re out at work. But compare the length of the working day (around 8-10 hours, with commute) with the stretch (12 hours, 7pm to 7am) that many sleep trainers and popular books present as the ‘holy grail’ of infant sleep!

Most babies will take a bottle when mum is away, and even if they decide, as some do, to just snack the minimum and top up from mama when you return from work, there is still plenty time for them to get the calories they need providing they have unlimited access to the boob for the rest of the 24-hour period.

Your little person will greet you ravenously on your return, which is great for reconnecting; and in general they will ensure they then drink enough, if you let them. Babies are smart. The bottle is not the same as a breast, not even the “closer to nature” breast-shaped bottles.

Returning to work is not about tricking them that mum is still around, but trusting them to understand, accept and adapt to a new routine. Mostly that will mean bottle feeding with the caregiver just fine.

For a few babies that might mean getting by on the minimum, and having lovely long snuggly bonding feeds when you are around. It is also reassuring to know that lots of babies can drink from a straw cup from around 7 months, and some prefer drinking expressed milk that way.

The At-Work Set Up

It is worth being proactive in how you approach your return to work. Find out if your company has a Returning Mothers policy, or if not, do your research before approaching your boss or HR department to ask for what you need. What you need:

  1. Regular, scheduled pumping breaks, every 2-3 hours. 45 minutes is ideal, once you get experienced you might be able to get the job done in 30.

  2. A clean, comfortable, quiet space for pumping. It should contain, at the minimum, a comfortable chair/ sofa, a small fridge to store your milk (this could either be inside or outside the room), a power outlet to plug in. I work in a school, and there is a dedicated Mothers’ Room with a code lock on the door that only pumping mums have, and a large curtain over the door so when mums are coming in and out pumpers still have privacy.

  3. You might also be able to negotiate some extra time; for example returning mothers at my school don’t have supervision duty, needn’t attend additional non-essential meetings, and have a form co-tutor to make the morning break time sufficient for pumping.

Pump It Up Together

If there are other pumping mums at your work, share the space if possible, rather than scheduling separate times. Pumping can be extremely isolating, since you will be spending all your free time pumping rather than eating or chatting with your colleagues.

It is great to overcome initial shyness to have some pumping buddies; someone to share cute baby pics, tea and biscuits, and compare lack of sleep. If you miss your scheduled slot for some reason, only to find the room locked and in use, it could be tricky as your boobs get engorged and you only have a certain amount of time before your next meeting.

Make friends with the other mamas, keep the fridge stocked with chocolate biscuits, and have each other’s backs if you forget your charger, milk bags etc.

The Tools of the Trade

If you can afford to, invest in a good double pump and a hands-free pumping bra. Then you can put your feet up, drink tea and scroll on your phone while you pump. Pumping will probably take the place of all other breaks, so make yourself comfortable and try to relax. I always made a point of trying not to do actual work while in there. Ask your caregiver to send lots of photos and videos of your baby as these can encourage letdown.

Some mums like to cover the bottles, so that you are not fixated on filling them, or on

watching the millilitres creep up, or on wondering if Slacker Boob is going to show

today. Zone out, marvel over your baby’s cuteness, catch up on Facebook, and

before you know it your bottles will be brimming.

It’s hard to look past the Medela for a good workhorse pump. It’s nothing fancy, but it just seems to work really well for most mums. It can be plugged into the mains or battery-operated, it’s quite small and light. I’ve also used the Youha and it’s great too, and I hear good things about the Spectra. I recently got the chance to try the Elvie pump that you pop in your bra; it has some advantages but also some frustrations compared to my trusty old Medela.

Store and Transport the Precious

My commute is anywhere between twenty and forty-five minutes, and I’ve never used ice-packs for transporting. I don’t even use a cooler bag, I just throw the bottles of milk together with the pump parts into a large zip lock bag which I wash out daily, into my regular bag. Some pumps (the Youha is one) do come with a cute cooler bag, and you could add ice packs if your commute is long or you’re stopping for a well-deserved glass of wine on the way home.

Top tip: in between pumping sessions, there is no need to wash and sterilise your pump parts. You can just put the whole lot into a ziplock bag in the fridge, don’t even need to disassemble. You will wince when the freezing cold flanges touch your warm skin. There seriously should be a medal for what we do.

Pace The Feeding

To ensure your caregiver is using only the milk you pump the day before to feed your little one, share with her the paced feeding technique (watch a video by an IBCLC here). It mimics the experience of breastfeeding, so your bub is less likely to glug a whole bottle, instead stopping when full as they would do at the breast. Let your caregiver know that they needn’t finish every drop of the bottle, and to look out for signs they are satiated- the unclenched fist is a good one. You can help the caregiver to regulate milk intake and avoid overfeeding by storing your milk in small amounts.

Photo Credit: David Barnaby

Normalise it

It’s important to me to make sure that I let my colleagues know, in the course of conversation, where I am going when I’m off to the pumping room, why I’m not around at lunch, and so on. I make a point of mentioning the reason to my students (I work in a secondary school) if I arrive a little late to class or why I can’t schedule feedback meetings at lunch time. The monumental work that we pumping mamas do needs to be visible, not hidden away. Fight the good fight, supermamas! Let’s have our efforts recognized in the workplace.


I find it extremely reassuring to know that if I do hit a snag with pumping enough for my baby, other mamas here in Hong Kong have my back. There is always milk offered for donation, and I know from experience that lovely mums are ready and willing to share their stash with your baby. It takes a village, and you can reach your village through Hong Kong Breastfeeding-Women Only, It Tastes Like Love, or Human Milk 4 Human Babies Hong Kong. You can do this hard thing mama! And we can help.

Photo Credit: Darren LeBeuf

About the author: Gillian Coull is a Scottish teacher of English Literature and a mother of three. She is a passionate advocate for breastfeeding and women’s rights.

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