How often you pump when separated from your baby depends on several factors. One is whether your goal is to pump enough during the day for the baby to have exclusive breastmilk feedings the next day, or whether you plan to combine formula and breastfeeding. You may decide to combine breast and formula feedings if your baby tolerates formula well and is used to it, or if your schedule at work doesn't allow time for frequent emptying of your breasts. If your goal is for your baby to have only breastmilk, then ideally you will empty your breasts about as often as he nurses when you are together. For example, if you return to work when your baby is six weeks old and still nursing every 2-3 hours, then you should try to pump every 2-3 hours when you are separated. If you return to work when your baby is six months old, eating solid foods, and going 3-4 hours between feedings, you may only need to pump every four hours.
This is an optimal schedule for the mother of a young baby who wants to provide only breastmilk for her baby:
• Set your alarm 20 minutes early (OUCH!) Nurse your baby, even if he is half asleep.
• Get both of you dressed and ready to go. Pack up everything you can the night before -- diaper bag, bottles in cooler, lay out clothes, etc.
• Eat a good breakfast. Don't skimp on this, even if it is something you can eat quickly like a carton of yogurt or bagel with cream cheese. Be sure to include a nutritious drink, such as juice or milk.
• Nurse again for a few minutes before you leave if possible. Some babies get so much milk at the first feeding that you can't get them to eat again, but try anyway.
• Pump mid-morning. Allow at least 20-30 minutes for each pumping session (ten minutes for pumping with a good double pump, and ten minutes for assembly and clean-up). Have a drink and a nutritious snack while you pump.
• Pump again at lunchtime. If possible, leave work and go to your day-care site to nurse. More and more companies are providing on-site day care, or you may live close enough to travel home and back if dad is watching the baby or your caregiver lives nearby. It may even be possible for your caregiver to bring your baby to you at lunchtime. Once again, eat a nutritious meal with something to drink.
• Pump again mid-afternoon. Have a drink and a snack.
• Nurse as soon as possible after you pick your baby up from day-care or return home.
• Eat a nutritious dinner.
• Nurse your baby frequently during the night. Tucking him in bed with you is a good way to make up for the closeness and skin-to-skin contact that you miss out on during the day. Some babies start to nurse more frequently during the night when they are separated from their mothers during the day. This is called "reverse cycle feeding" and works well for many mothers, especially if they find it hard to pump during the day. If baby is in bed with you, you will get the rest you need while he gets the milk he needs.
Having given you the hypothetical "optimal" schedule for a working mom, let me hasten to say that this is an ideal which many mothers find impossible to implement. Don't get the idea that if you can't pump three times during the day, you shouldn't even try to continue nursing. Many mothers have work schedules that are very inflexible, and they don't have either the time or the place to pump more than once a day, or even not at all. If this is the case, you can still breastfeed. If at all possible, try to pump at least once during the day (usually you can find time at lunch, even if you don't have any other breaks). Pumping even once a day will give you some stimulation, help maintain your supply, and help keep you from becoming engorged. If you are only able to pump once each day, you will probably have to supplement with formula, but at least your baby will have one feeding of breastmilk, and you can continue nursing while you are together.