Creating a pumping schedule

You may have heard that, as babies grow older, they tend to fall into patterns and schedules. Babies aren’t the only ones who like schedules, though – schedules can make their parents’ lives easier, from figuring out when a good bedtime might be to helping breast milk pumping run more smoothly. Breastfeeding is a skill that, for many new moms, needs to be learned, and pumping adds a whole new level to that skill. Pumping on a schedule can work with the body’s natural rhythms to help the body learn how much milk to produce and when to produce it.

Pumping basics 

No matter what kind of pumping schedule you need to set up for your family, there are a few guidelines that can help any pumping schedule run more smoothly. First, just having a schedule is important. This is true whether you’re feeding your baby on a specific schedule or feeding on-demand. This is because it’s a lot easier to push back or forget a pumping session during a busy day than it is to forget to feed a crying baby at feeding time. Having a schedule means having time, at least theoretically, set aside for pumping, which can make a huge difference when it comes to making sure the pumping process goes smoothly. More than that, your body works better with routines, just like your baby does, which means that establishing a pumping schedule can help ensure that when you do have (or carve out) time to pump, it’s a productive pumping session, and not one that leaves you feeling discouraged.

It can feel uncomfortable, or even counterintuitive, but if you’re having trouble producing or pumping as much milk as you’d like to, adding more pumping time is a good rule of thumb. It doesn’t always feel like a good use of time, especially if you’re not getting much milk from it, but the added stimulation will help signal to your body that more milk is needed. More frequent, shorter pumping sessions, instead of fewer, longer ones mimics the pattern of cluster feeding that babies go through just before growth spurts, when they need more milk to keep up with their speedy growth.

Finally, feeding schedules change, and one of the most important ways that they change is related to shifts in feeding patterns as babies grow. Whether you’re exclusively pumping or just pumping when you’re not right there with your baby, ideally, it’s a good idea to pump about as many times as she feeds during a day. That’s not always possible, and not being able to pump quite as often as Baby eats doesn’t mean you won’t have a perfectly successful pumping experience, but as often as she eats is a good goal to work towards. If you have a newborn, this might mean fitting in pumping sessions every 2 to 3 hours, or about 8 to 12 times in a 24-hour day. For an older baby or a toddler, that might look more like 3 to 6 times a day during the daytime, and none or only one at night.

More than that, while schedules are important to have, like every other part of parenting, they’re also subject to change based on your little one’s whims, the weather, fate, chance, or a strong passing breeze, and being able to be flexible about yours in whatever way makes the most sense for you will help you and Baby out immensely. Especially as she grows older, and starts eating more and more complementary foods, sticking to a strict schedule may start to become less important to you.

Pumping around returning to work 

Depending on where you work, you may have the legally protected right to unpaid time and a private space for pumping throughout the first year of your baby’s life, but even if you’re legally entitled to this time, scheduling it into a workday can be tricky. On the other hand, some employers go above and beyond the legal minimum they’re required to offer – in either case, it’s important to talk to your employer or HR representative ahead of time, to find out what time and space you’ll have for pumping at work.

Current regulations in the US say that companies with 50 or more employees are required to give you the time and space to pump in order to feed your baby. This is unpaid time, although you can also use paid lunch or breaks for this purpose. However, there are exceptions under the law for exempt employees. A sample pumping schedule for the mother of a young baby in a workplace that guarantees the chance to pump might include:

  • Breastfeeding your baby right before work
  • A 30-minute break to pump around 10
  • Another pumping break around 1, during lunch
  • A final pumping break around 3
  • Breastfeeding after work on-demand

This schedule might then reduce down to two, and then one pumping session during the day as the baby grows.

If you work for a company with fewer than 50 employees, that doesn’t offer alternative arrangements for pumping, though, things can get tricky. If lunch is the only significant amount of time during your workday for pumping, it’s especially important to nurse or pump directly before and after work. If a long commute gets in the way of doing so, you may be able to pump in the car directly before leaving for work, after driving to work but before going in to your job, after leaving work but before heading home, or after arriving home before heading in.

Pumping while breastfeeding 

Pumping as often as your baby eats is really only practical when you’re either exclusively pumping or pumping when you’re away from your baby. If you’re pumping to try to build up your supply of stored milk, but you’re breastfeeding at the same time, other strategies, like pumping the breast your baby isn’t feeding from, pumping after a feeding, or pumping a few times a day in the middle of the biggest gaps between feedings may be more effective. If you’re pumping while breastfeeding, and are hoping to boost the amount of milk your body is producing, adding an extra pumping session either late at night or in the early morning can help, even if your baby isn’t waking up at these times.

On the other hand, if you’re breastfeeding and pumping and your baby is still waking up regularly during the night, nighttime can be a good time to let go of the schedule a little. By only pumping after waking up with your baby during the night, you can encourage milk production without giving up one of the most powerful assets in a parent’s back pocket – sleep. 

Pumping with a newborn in the NICU

Pumping with a newborn in the NICU can be very emotionally challenging, but it can have immense rewards, both for mom and baby. Breast milk can help premature and sick babies fight off illness, and pumping can help parents feel more in control, like they’re doing something concrete to help their babies. Just like pumping to feed any newborn, a schedule of pumping times that are 2 to 3 hours apart, or 8 to 12 times a day, is ideal. However, especially after giving birth to a premature baby, it can take a little extra time for your body to start producing enough milk. This can be difficult, but it shouldn’t be a reason to stop trying.

The early breast milk that is produced for premature babies is slightly different from other breast milk in that it’s high in protein and minerals, packed with antibodies, and is generally full of nutrients to help promote growth and health.

Hospitals generally have pumps you can use there, and the hospital is a great place to start to get the hang of pumping, since you’re right near nurses and lactation consultants who can help walk you through the process and offer any help you might need.

  • Mayo Clinic Staff. “Breast-feeding and pumping: 7 tips for success.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic, April 8 2015. Web.
  • “Providing Breastmilk for Premature and Ill Newborns.” HealthyChildren. American Academy of Pediatrics, November 21 2015. Web.
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