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The idea of returning to work after maternity leave is daunting. Because it’s not really going back to the world you once knew. You have morphed into a new person. You have new values, new needs and new roles. Going back is like starting a fresh job, but perhaps more intimidating because unlike ever before, you are the person you’re getting to know.
Figuring out my rhythm for pumping at the office took some practice. The employer has a big role to play, but you can also set yourself up for an easier transition back.
Being prepared for various scenarios (a spill, a forgotten accessory) will lift a tremendous weight off your shoulders. So today, I’m giving you a peek into my fool-proof pumping bag.
- Breast pump (duh!)
This might sound basic, but your pump is probably more than just the machine that initially comes to mind. It’s also all the parts. I actually forgot the breast shields on my first day back to the office. Luckily I had a Medela at the time, which is super common. I was able to run to Walmart and get replacement parts in a matter of minutes. From that day forward, I found an easier way to do my “pump part checklist.” Rather than looking for tubes, membranes, shields, bottles, cords, etc., I started counting the parts. I had 15 pieces I needed to bring with me. If my count was off, I’d take a deeper look to see what I might be missing.These days I use a Willow Pump, so I only have six pieces to worry about. Woohoo! And here’s a pro-tip: Between pumping sessions, I keep the parts that touch milk in gallon sized Ziplock bag and throw it in the fridge when I’m not using it. This way I don’t have to wash parts more than once a day, or worry about potential dangers of using the sink at work.
- Milk storage bags
It’s so easy to unintentionally run out of these. In a pinch, plastic storage bags, like the Ziplock brand, are sanitary and will do for some breast pumps. But I’ve learned to always keep two packs of milk storage bags with me. The second bag reads “REFILL” prominently in black Sharpie. That’s my cue to add a new supply when I get home, or hop on Amazon for a replacement pack.Edit following a great comment from a reader: You may not need these if you’re pursuing plastic-free, sustainable options. However, some pumps, like the Willow which I use, require use of milk bags.
- Pump wipes
These are made to safely disinfect pump parts (Amazon, $7), without using chemicals that are too strong. Truthfully, I rarely use these, but I’m always grateful to have them when I drop a part on the floor.
- Paper towels or disinfectant wipes
Hopefully your employer will have paper towels available, but I’ve definitely been in a pinch before and been grateful to have a small stash handy. Even if you don’t have a spill, you may need to wipe down the surfaces around you.
- Cooler with ice packs
You can use any insulated lunch bag, but I recommend one that’s taller, or one that is specifically designed for milk storage (Amazon, $15), so you can keep your spoils upright! While you might not cry over spilled milk, you WILL shed tears over wasted breastmilk. Keeping the bags upright minimizes the chance of spilling. And while I used to keep the ice packs in a freezer and load everything up at the end of the day, I’ve since learned to put the milk in the cooler after each pump, along with the ice packs. Then I put the entire cooler in the refrigerator. This might sound unnecessary, but depending on how many people are opening and closing the fridge, it can help ensure your milk stays at a safe temperature.
- Hand sanitizer
Some pumping rooms have sinks, but not all. Germs can easily spread in the office and it’s so important to keep your milk safe. I love Giant Eagle’s Pecan Pumpkin Pie sanitizer ($1). It smells delicious and is super hydrating.
- Coconut oil
After our allergy testing ruled out tree nut issues, I switched from lanolin (an animal wax that protects and soothes nipples) to coconut oil. It’s cheaper, vegan, washes out of fabrics more easily, is safe for the baby (assuming you don’t have allergy issues), and can double as hand moisturizer and lip balm in a pinch.In the past I used a kitchen-sized tub, but my friends gifted me a lovely 2.5 oz container, which is perfect for this application. It’s Kopari brand from Sephora. If you’re not buying from a grocery store, just make sure coconut oil is the only ingredient.
- Hand cream
If you’re using lanolin instead of coconut oil like I recommended above, get some heavy moisturizing cream and keep it with you. You wash your hands so much as a mom – with every diaper change, before every feeding, after touching surfaces in public. It doesn’t matter what time of year it is, your hands will inevitably dry out and crack.Try something that doesn’t have alcohol, like Burt’s Bees almond & milk hand cream.
- Water bottle
Staying hydrated is always important, but never more so than when you’re pumping! You’ll need about 100 ounces of water a day. Skip the plastic and bring a bottle or cup from home! I’m rarely spotted without my 32-ounce Bubba cup ($15, Amazon).
- Healthy snack
This is especially helpful in the early days. You’ll likely find yourself ravenous during or after each pumping session. So if you’re not accustomed to bringing, or don’t have access to snacks at work – then start packing! I preferred granola bars or nuts because they keep well if they stay in the bag for a while.
- Compact mirror
An ideal lactation room will have a mirror on the wall. But not all do. And there’s nothing worse than stepping into a meeting, blouse buttons missed unbeknown to you. Give yourself a quick once-over before you head to your first meeting.
- Hair tie
If you have longer hair, you may find it beneficial to keep it out of your way while you pump. I love the “no crease” style ($10, Amazon), because they don’t mess up my hairstyle if I put it back down after pumping.
- Backup shirt
If, during your mirror check, you find a spill, you will be so glad to have an extra shirt handy. Because trust – when you have a spill or lanolin stain, it won’t be in a flattering spot. Pumping-friendly clothes can decrease the likelihood of spills. But if you’re a klutz like me, a bottle of milk will inevitably come tumbling to the floor at some point.In addition to the extra shirt, I recommend keeping a neutral sweater on the back of your chair. Just in case you’re having a really bad day. It can also be nice on those days the office is cold.
- One micro-steam bag
With these brilliant creations, you simply throw your parts and a little water in a bag, toss the bag in the microwave for 3 minutes, and bam! Your parts are disinfected. So much easier than boiling parts in hot water.Before you give this a try, read the owner’s manual on your pump to ensure it’s safe (but it should be).Truthfully, I’ve only used this once in a year at the office. But it’s reassuring to know it’s available if I need it.
- Milk storage guidelines magnet
Okay, so I don’t have this in my bag every day, but it’s a nice thing to have with you on day one. Medela sells a handy magnet that lists out the safe temperatures for milk, how quickly milk needs to be used or stored, and lists out resources for more info.I slapped this on the fridge in the lactation room for me and other moms to reference as needed. These days I feel like I have the temperature ranges and timelines memorized, but in the beginning it can be tough to keep straight.
- Fridge thermometer
Knowing the safe temperature ranges for your breast milk is useless if you don’t know what the fridge is registering at.The company I worked at when my son was born admittedly used an old fridge for the lactation room. One of the HR reps met with me before my leave and shared she wasn’t sure how reliable it was. So I got a thermometer to keep an eye on things. And sure enough, I noticed the fridge would range from 26 – 42 degrees on any given day. And I was the only one using it, so it wasn’t because the door was open all the time!This is why I highly recommend storing your milk inside of an insulated bag within a fridge. This liquid gold is far too precious to risk spoiling!
- The bag itself
Originally I had ordered a fancy leather Coach diaper bag that I planned on using at work for my pump parts. While beautiful, I found it to be bulky, so I resold it. When I was still using the Medela, I switched to a smaller bag I found on Zulilly. It did the job and came with lots of smaller storage pouches – an insulated cooler, wet bag and wipe bag to name a few. But it screamed diaper bag and felt a little embarrassing to me.Now that I’m using the smaller Willow pump, I’ve been able to downgrade to a simple waterproof tote ($24 on Amazon). It fits everything I need, doesn’t make me feel like a bag lady and definitely doesn’t scream “I’M A NURSING MOM” to those huddled inside a cramped elevator space with me.
Truth be told, my bag is a little full with all of this in it today. But things like the water bottle, extra shirt, magnet and thermometer can often be left in a desk drawer at the office.
Veteran mamas, what did I leave out? Or did I list anything that you didn’t personally find a need for? Chime in with your feedback!