A New Mom’s Guide - Returning to Work post Maternity Leave

Written by
Hamsini Ravi

Shilpa, a marketing professional in real estate, took her first extended break from work after her baby's birth. Despite moments of joy with her daughter, the experience was isolating and intense. As she prepares to return to work, Shilpa worries about balancing breastfeeding with her job. She's determined to stick to breastfeeding and feels anxious about expressing milk in a male-dominated office and discussing it with her boss.

Cheryl, a risk analyst, juggles breastfeeding and work as her maternity leave ends. She faces decisions on maintaining breastfeeding, considering breast pumps, and balancing work responsibilities. With potential travel for her next promotion, Cheryl aims to excel at work while prioritising her role as a new mom.

Gitika took an extra three months after six months of maternity leave due to premature labour. Despite family support, her baby refuses the bottle, relying on breastfeeding. As a corporate lawyer, Gitika loves her job, but her on-site work schedule poses challenges with her baby's feeding issues.

Balancing maternity leave and work return

Parental leave isn't just a "break" from work; it's an intense period of onboarding for one of life's toughest roles: parenting. From sleepless nights to feeding every two hours, it's a demanding job with no training. Returning to work after this whirlwind requires planning, discipline, and workplace support. It also doesn’t help that you barely get a few hours of sleep and you’re required to be functioning and present while figuring out myriad things like bathing a wriggly newborn, swaddling and burping them, and generally keeping them happy. Things do turn a corner in a few months: your newborn evolves into a slightly more interesting person: an infant who coos and smiles back. You never knew you could survive on 4 hours of sleep while physically making and catering to a human being’s entire dietary intake. Suddenly, it’s time to go back to your paying job. Having done this rigmarole twice, I know it is HARD, but also doable with some planning and discipline and support from your workplace. 

It is very hard to have your life upturned by a tiny human, no matter how much you wanted them, and then return to work like nothing has changed. As Pallavi Aiyar writes in her incredible 2016 memoir ‘Babies and Bylines’, ‘It took me years, and a second child, to figure out that in fact motherhood should affect a woman’s approach to work, as a man’s, that becoming parents changes us, and that this transformation is healthy and needs to be anticipated rather than brushed under the carpet under the guise of ‘professionalism’, that change does not have to be deleterious, or that ‘affect’ doesn’t necessarily equal ‘harm’.”

While birthing mothers get six months of maternity leave in India, there is still a lot to think about and plan when maternity leave ends, and you need to report back to work. Not every new mother has familial support and needs to draw up extensive childcare plans and organise things around the home. The other big barrier is the absolute lack of paternity leave in the private sector in India, and putting too much onus on mothers to be the primary caregiver for their children.

And then there is the big one- breastfeeding. For those of us who continue to breastfeed after returning to work, there are good, evidence-backed reasons to do so: breastmilk will strengthen your baby’s still developing immune system, the longer you breastfeed, your baby will fall sick less often or recover faster when sick, your own protection against breast and ovarian cancers is boosted with every year of breastfeeding and breastfeeding provides your baby (and you!) the emotional support and comfort among all the changes and upheavals of returning to work and adjusting to other caregivers or in new environments, like a daycare, starting solids, growth spurts and teething!

As both a mother, and a certified lactation educator, I have some top tips to ease this transition:

  1. Learning to overcome guilt: You will feel guilt and you will question your choices, no matter how logical and clear going back to work feels to you. It is ok to be sad, and that does not mean that going back to work is the wrong choice for you. Just the fact that you’ve thought about what’s best for you and the baby, means that you’re an amazing mother who loves your baby and has made an intentional choice. Don’t shut down feelings of sadness or guilt, process them and allow yourselves to feel all the feelings. Check in with yourself and your partner and even consider taking professional mental health support. Remember that you’re among the sisterhood of women from across the world, returning to jobs that they love and/or are important to them. 
  1. Not a binary choice: Breastfeeding is likely to contribute to your complicated feelings. You may feel physically and emotionally low about having to leave your baby for hours together. Admittedly, returning to work and being away from an infant for hours together IS tricky, because the baby is dependent on you for a majority of their nutritional needs. Breastmilk (or formula) tends to form the bedrock of an infant’s diet, even when they’re eating solids very well. With some planning and discipline, it is possible to both breastfeed and go to work. It does not have to be a binary choice.
  1. Planning what works for you: Three weeks before heading back to work, begin planning your milk expression strategy. Decide whether to use a manual, electric, or wearable breast pump. Some opt for hand expression, which can be just as effective with practice. Electric pumps are ideal for full workdays, but practice is needed to adjust to the suction. Initially, small milk quantities are normal; power pumping and compressions can help increase output. A vacuum silicone milk collector on one breast while nursing from the other can gradually build a stash without active pumping. Wearable pumps offer discreet pumping but may have lower suction, so balance with a non-wearable pump if needed.
  1. Get the baby used to the bottle: It is also important to introduce the bottle to the baby, if they haven’t been introduced to one already. Since you’re likely going to balance bottle and breastfeeding, it is important to go in for a bottle that is conducive to continued breastfeeding with a naturally shaped nipple that supports a slow flow so that the baby doesn’t develop a bottle preference. A lactation professional will be able to help with options for these. Remember to always use a paced-bottle feeding technique and train other caregivers to follow this. If your baby is refusing the bottle, try spoon feeding, syringe feeding or cup feeding. These are all legitimate means to feed an infant breastmilk, especially at 6 months of age, some breastfed babies completely skip the bottle and are capable of drinking breastmilk from a straw cup.
  1. Prepare your workplace: Inform your manager and HR about your pumping plan as per Indian Maternity Law, allowing two nursing breaks daily until the baby is 15 months old. Assert your rights for a private room with electric sockets. Label expressed milk and block pumping time on your calendar for consistency. Maintain a routine to ensure breast milk supply. As your baby grows, you may reduce pumping sessions gradually.
  1. Plan your travel schedule: You'll need roughly 30 ml of breastmilk per hour away from your baby, totaling about 240 ml for an 8-hour absence, factoring in commute time. Nurse when you're with your baby and pump while apart to streamline the process. Relaxation techniques during pumping, such as watching videos or photos of your baby, can help maximise output. To alleviate anxiety, keep extra milk at home and work with a lactation consultant to establish a storage plan. Having a surplus ensures you're prepared for unexpected delays without panic.
  1. Storage and hygiene: Breastmilk storage is easy to remember through the ‘Rule of 4s’: breast milk stays good for four hours at room temperature and for four days in a refrigerator and four months in a deep freezer. While at work, there is no need to clean and sterilise your breast pump parts after every use, you can use a ‘fridge hack’ by storing the pump parts in a ziplock bag or container. The pump parts can then be washed and sterilised at home. 

For workplaces, remember that your returning employee has unique emotional and physiological needs in this period. Research based in the US has found that if employees are provided lactation support in the workplace, the amount of lost work time due to sick babies goes down by 77% and that employees who breastfeed have half the absenteeism rates of those who do not. While the current law does not specify providing physical infrastructure for lactating employees, investing in a simple room will go a long way in making your workplace supportive to new mothers. While you don’t need to build anything fancy, private spaces within the room will ensure that multiple mothers can use it to pump at her own time and schedule. Remember that the room should be equipped with a fridge and electric outlets, at the very least. Having a sink so that mothers can wash and clean their pump parts will be a bonus. Most importantly, ensure that the room is private and closed and can be locked on the inside with a fridge and that it should be earmarked specially for mothers. Consider having a focus group discussion or sending out a survey to expecting and new mothers who have taken maternity leave in the past few years, to gauge what else could go into designing a thoughtful and functional room.


Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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Work-life conversations that question the status quo.
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