In 2019, I returned to my full-time teaching job in a dental hygiene program after my four-month maternity leave. While navigating the transition from stay-at-home to working mom was difficult, the logistics of pumping was not. Not only did I have the full support of my boss who was a mother of two herself, I also had the luxury of a private office. I remember thinking to myself that I could never have done it if I still worked in private practice.
Fast-forward two years later: I returned to work full time from maternity leave again, but this time things couldn’t have been more different. I had a 4-month-old baby girl and was returning full time to clinical practice. When COVID hit, my husband's job relocated our family and I had to leave my teaching position that I'd loved so much. So not only was I navigating the logistics of returning to clinical practice full time; I also had to figure out how to pump every 3 to 3.5 hours with a full schedule of patients. While it seemed impossible, I was determined to figure it out. I'd pumped and nursed my son for a year and wanted the same for my daughter.
I'm eight months in now and while it hasn't been the easiest, I've been able to maintain pumping and a full-time hygiene schedule with minimal interruptions. Here are some tips for pumping at work that I’ve learned along the way.
Make it clear you're returning to work with a new baby.
If you're already working in an office, this part is easier. However, if you're interviewing for a new position, mention you have a new baby at home. That way, if you're offered the position the office won't be surprised by your request for pumping breaks.
Establish where you'll pump and set a code.
My return to full time clinical practice meant that I no longer had a private office, so I had to figure out where I could pump. The only option for me was going to be the supply closet as it has a door. Once I knew this would be the place, I established a code that would let everyone know I was in there pumping. For me, it was a bright blue sticky note on the door.
Don't feel awkward about this conversation—quite frankly, an office full of dental professionals should understand. A new mom and a nursing baby are basic biology! I also kept my pump bag in there so that I could go in and shut the door without having to lug the bag around the office.
Be OK with adjusting timing.
This is where it can admittedly get a little tricky. Sometimes you'll have to go with the flow and accept that you'll just have to pump when you can, even if it's not the schedule you're used to. Also, you'll need the support of your dentist and assistants. For example, if I finished my 2 p.m. appointment by 2:45, I would ask one of the assistants if they would break down and set up my room so I could pump. Another option was to ask if they’d take my x-rays if I knew my pump session was going to run me a few minutes late. Also, patient cancellations can be a great opportunity to sneak in an extra pumping session, especially if the rest of the day is slammed.
Give yourself some grace.
I won't lie to you—there were a few days where I felt really overwhelmed pumping in the supply room knowing my patient was waiting for me. Then one day I realized—they could wait. If being able to maintain nutrition for my daughter meant my running five to 10 minutes late with a patient, then so be it. I knew that if I gave it up, I would regret it so much. I didn't run late on every patient without a care in the world for their time. For the most part it worked fine, but there were a couple of times I did run late, and guess what? It was fine! Give yourself some grace and don’t beat yourself up. You're a working health-care professional but also a mom, and never truly off the “mom clock.” It's a lot but you're doing the best you can. Don't ever forget that.
Operate with honesty and open communication.
Be very honest with your boss about what you need to feel supported. Explain to them that you are going to do the very best you can, but you may run a few minutes late sometimes. You also might need the extra help of the assistants to seat your patient or take your bitewings so you can pump. If this can be accomplished, then there's no reason it can’t work. A good boss should be able to look at the big picture and realize that this is temporary and should do everything to support you so you can be the best hygienist you can for your patients.
I want to be clear that I'm not saying every mom should pump at work. It's a personal choice that every woman must make for herself. What I am saying is that the decision should be one you make out of choice, not out of circumstance. You shouldn't have to stop because you're not supported. Be clear about what you need from your team. Advocate for yourself and your baby, and don't let yourself get pushed out of the workforce. You don't have to choose between doing a career you love and nourishing your baby—you can have both. Also, when the time comes, pass along the help and support to another nursing mom in your office. Offer to help seat her patient or break down her room so she can pump. When they say it takes a village, it's not only for babies, it's for moms, too.