5 effective ways to talk to your boss about pumping rights at work

Motherly Collective

I became a mother after a successful career in politics and as a lawyer at an international firm. When I found out I was having my daughter, I was over the moon with joy on a personal level. Professionally, I was terrified. I felt I knew what my supervisors were thinking and was certain I could never overcome the presumption that I was now off the “partner track” (continuing to advance) and on the “mommy track.”  

As a notoriously tough, take-no-prisoners litigator, I should have had all the confidence in the world to advocate for myself as a new mother. I should have felt secure in my position, knowing my value and my rights. Instead, I was scared to death. 

No woman I had ever seen or heard of had successfully remained a lawyer in my department after having the audacity to become a mom. I was certain that the moment I began to “show” (like something out of an 18th century novel), I was done for. No matter what I had accomplished, how well I was performing, or what I would undoubtedly deliver in revenue as a talented employee, my employer would see me as nothing more than a “mommy” and a burden.

It’s understandable to be shaken to our core when you find out you’re pregnant… and then again when you need to return to work. I’m sharing my top 5 tips with you about talking to your employer about your new circumstances—because having a baby shouldn’t place a deadline on a career you love or a job you really need. 

And that’s one of the main reasons I founded Ceres Chill. I wasn’t on any supposed “mommy track”; I went back to my job, committed to delivering as a profitable and valuable member of a prestigious firm. I worked long hours. I traveled a lot. I also wanted to breastfeed. But work demands combined with the lack of products out there to make breastfeeding on-the-go even remotely doable definitely pushed me to quit breastfeeding earlier than I wanted to. The bulky coolers and ice packs that only stayed cold for a few hours were not adequate for anyone’s average work day, let alone a working mom’s, so I invented the Breastmilk Chiller, a completely under-the-radar breastmilk storage bottle that keeps 27 oz of milk cold for 20 hours using just ice. 

I’ve since left my legal career to dedicate myself to helping moms through Ceres Chill. Honestly, I never intended to be a CEO and certainly never considered myself an inventor, but what I needed as a working mom trying to accomplish very basic, fundamental goals just didn’t exist, so I created it. And now, I am living proof that it is possible to fight your way forward to be wildly successful as a mother and a professional.

How to talk to your employer about your return-to-work needs and pumping rights

1. Before you go on maternity leave: Know your value and have your resume ready

It all starts here. This isn’t busy work. Your resume is your secret weapon for reminding yourself just how valuable and amazing you are professionally.

Writing down your professional accomplishments, as a student, as a volunteer, in your community, in any way you have been recognized or trained, reminds you of your capabilities.  Seeing those experiences and capabilities written out gives you clarity, allowing you to advocate for yourself professionally and to counter any pushback you may face. It’s a physical document to reference when you speak with your employer, to give you confidence and important talking points.  

Remember, you’re having a baby. You aren’t losing a lifetime of experience, skills, training, talent, education and knowledge when you become pregnant. 

You are more than you were before, not less. 

2. Before you return to work: Get familiar with your pumping rights

When it comes to pumping at work, you have legal rights under the 2023 Providing Urgent Maternal Protections (PUMP) for Nursing Mothers Act. Some states offer even greater protections, but none can offer less. Educating yourself on these rights is invaluable. But be aware, even though these laws exist, many employers aren’t familiar with the details and have no idea how to comply with the law or meet your needs as a working mother.

Larger companies, and even small employers with less than 50 employees, are required to follow the PUMP Act. In general, the only employees not covered by the PUMP Act are gig/contract workers, rail workers, airline pilots and flight attendants (we are working on helping all those parents out as soon as possible. No mom left behind!).

  • Provided space: Employers are required to provide a clean, comfortable space for you to pump that is free of cameras and the intrusion of others. Ideally, the room should have a power outlet, a sink, a chair and a door with a lock. A privacy sign is a nice bonus. A bathroom is NOT allowed as a pump space, as it is not a sanitary option for preparing food (which is what you’re doing when pumping and storing breastmilk!). 

    When thinking of an appropriate space to pitch to your employer, consider all available options: unused offices or conference rooms, research libraries, modified supply rooms, or rentable pumping pods if necessary. 

  • Allotted time: Employers must give you a reasonable amount of time to pump. Having a recommended schedule from a pediatrician or lactation consultant could help you with this part of the PUMP Act. 
  • Entitled to breaks: Be aware that you are entitled to breaks where you completely disconnect and do nothing except for pumping (but your employer is not obligated to pay for those breaks). If you are doing any type of work while pumping (sending emails, answering calls, responding to any work-related request) your pump time does not count as a break and you must be compensated with pay. If you feel you are able to pump and do work, that is completely your choice. 

Here is a checklist you can reference so you make sure you have what you need for pumping. 

Pump space basics - PUMP ActPump space basics - PUMP Act
Courtesy of Ceres Chill

3. Understand your needs when you return to work

According to the CDC, the inability to have flexible work hours or pump breaks is the number one reason working moms stop breastfeeding earlier than planned. Only 17% of shift workers and 24% of non-shift workers make it to their goal of breastfeeding for 6 months. Most of those women quit breastfeeding before they reach their goal because they have to return to work with inadequate support, tools, breaks or knowledge. 

Knowing your rights, your value and what you need as a working, pumping mom is your best shot at success. Look to lactation professionals, pediatricians, co-worker moms and online resources to help you plan for a successful return. 

Consider initiating a pump schedule before you return to work to make the transition easier. Lactation consultants often recommend that working moms pump both breasts for around 15 to 20 minutes, ideally first thing in the morning after the baby has nursed. That might be hard for you with all you are doing to get ready in the morning, but just keep this recommendation in mind and do your best.  

An example of a back-to-work pump schedule for a mom of a 3-month-old would be pumping every 3 hours for 20 minutes each session. You may need more time or to pump more frequently. Find a schedule that works for you and allows you to maintain your supply.

Additionally, try to pack your pump and work bag the night before. Having a small manual pump in your office or work bag is a great emergency option. Being prepared will ensure you aren’t completely stuck without something hugely important, like a pump power cord, flanges or tubing.

4. Be ready to advocate for yourself 

Unfortunately, employers likely won’t know what you need if you don’t tell them. If possible, find a way to meet with your employer in-person or over the phone before returning to work. Sending an email can be effective, but a personal conversation on something this important may get the best results. 

Keep in mind you need to help your employer understand your value, their obligations, and your needs. Be prepared to offer suggestions on what you believe will be the most practical ways to support you with a pump space and necessary breaks. 

Below is an example of an email you can send to start the conversation off with your employer and clarifying language for two key points of the PUMP Act that are subjective. This will help you confidently and clearly communicate your needs. 

  • A reasonable amount of time: An average pump session takes 20 minutes, so you likely will want to ask for at least 30 minutes per break to give yourself enough time to get set up and decompress before starting to pump (this can help boost your output) and clean up. And it’s OK if things change; nothing should be set in stone.
  • A clean, private space: This one isn’t complicated. It can be anything from an unused, locked conference room to a private area with a curtain that prevents intrusion by the public or coworkers. It can’t be a bathroom, dark storage space without climate control, etc. You will want to go into your conversation with an idea of a space that can be set up in the event there isn’t already a dedicated lactation room. 
Example of email to an employer about pumping rights - customizableExample of email to an employer about pumping rights - customizable
Example of email to an employer about pumping rightsExample of email to an employer about pumping rights
Courtesy of Ceres Chill

5. Try not to take the process personally

Remember that you and your employer are both trying to navigate a new and challenging situation. They may be facing challenges related to your maternity absence or other, completely unrelated issues (i.e. a bad economy, government mandates, change in company leadership, a personal crisis or maybe just a regular old head cold). The challenges your supervisor is facing have nothing to do with you, but they might affect the way your supervisor responds to your requests. Knowing your worth and what you need to succeed will help you ride out the process and get reestablished in the workplace.      

Becoming a parent is a life-altering experience. As a mom who fought her way through all of this mess to make partner at a law firm while breastfeeding her son for 18 months, I know that it is easier said than done, but do your best to never let anyone steal your joy or add negativity and stress to your already very full life. 

You are entitled to pump breaks and a safe pump space under the law.  

You don’t need to explain your needs to anyone except your employer. 

You should never have to choose between your breastfeeding goals and your career or paycheck. 

 Please never hesitate to reach out to Ceres Chill with any questions. You’ve got this—and you’re not alone. 

Additional resources

Need help understanding or enforcing the law?  A Better Balance and Center for WorkLife Law are nonprofit organizations that host free and confidential legal helplines where you can get helpful answers. 

  • Contact A Better Balance by calling 1-833-NEED-ABB or using the online form. 
  • Contact the Center for WorkLife Law helpline by emailing [email protected] or calling (415) 703-8276.

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please click here.

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