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Making It Work

Office Etiquette: Do I let coworkers know that my milk is in the fridge?

From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 5, September-October 2007, pp. 224-227

"Making It Work" is a regular feature of the magazine NEW BEGINNINGS, published bimonthly by La Leche League International. In this column, suggestions are offered by readers of NEW BEGINNINGS to help mothers who wish to combine breastfeeding and working. Various points of view are presented. Not all of the information may be pertinent to your family's lifestyle. This information is general in nature, and not intended to be advice, medical or otherwise.

Mother's Situation

When my maternity leave is over, I will be pumping and storing my milk at work during the day. No one in my office has pumped for their babies, at least not since I've been employed there, so I'm not sure how to go about storing my milk in the common refrigerator. Do I let people know my milk is in there? How have others dealt with this, especially if coworkers have been less than pleased about keeping their food and drinks in the same refrigerator as expressed human milk?

Mother's Response

When I worked, the toilet facility where I had to pump was a single-stall, unisex bathroom and the refrigerator was essentially in the center of the newsroom outside of the bathroom door. All of my colleagues knew what was going in next to their sodas and lunch leftovers!

I placed the bottles of my milk in a small canvas bag, so once it was in the fridge it could have been a sandwich, soda, or anything else. I did try to be respectful of my coworkers' space in that way. I was the only breastfeeding mom in my office. It was my first official, full-time job so I suppose I was blissfully clueless as to know how radical my expectations were about pumping and storing my milk. I just thought everyone must do whatever was needed to bring home the baby's nourishment so that's what I did, however public it may have been.

One of the keys that made it work was that I had a very supportive supervisor. He just let me do what I needed to do, as long as my work was done on time, which it always was.

Also, I think it helped that many days my husband brought my daughter into work for a brief visit after he picked her up from the babysitter's home so she could nurse once and he could take home the expressed milk. Everyone in the workplace got to know and love my baby as well.

Creating that balance between rightful expectations for myself, respecting other people's space, and doing my work professionally while not hiding my baby or my life from coworkers created a good balance for me as a nursing and working mom.

Dana Villamagna
Wisconsin USA

Mother's Response

It's natural to be concerned about being the "pumping pioneer" in any office situation. I had this dubious distinction last year and it really helped just to stay focused and try not to worry too much about what others may think. I found I had a lot of support from the women in the office and the men just didn't concern themselves with it. It's clear from your questions that you have respect for your coworkers' possible concerns, but don't forget to respect your own need for privacy.

I don't see any reason for you to tell people that you are storing your milk in the fridge as it is not a health risk to them, and really doesn't affect them or their job performance in any way. If you needed to store prescription medicine in the fridge, would you feel compelled to tell people? Besides, if the contents of your office fridge are like the ones I've seen elsewhere, I bet there are much scarier things in there like old half-eaten sandwiches that look like science experiments!

Storing milk in the common refrigerator shouldn't be difficult and there is no need for anyone to actually see the bottles or milk. Buy yourself a small, insulated cooler or lunch bag. Clearly mark it with your name or business card and store the filled bottles in the bag with the zipper slightly open so cold air can enter and circulate. People will assume it's your lunch and I bet lots of other folks bring and store their lunches this way in your office. By isolating your milk stock in a bag, you eliminate any issues with coworkers' concerns: they don't see you pumping, they don't see the milk, all they see is your lunch bag in the fridge. How could they be uncomfortable with that?

Christine Amirian
Teaneck NJ USA

Mother's Response

I went back to work 12 weeks after my daughter was born, and I made the decision to nurse her full-time while I was with her, and pump my milk while I was at work. I actually never had to use the public refrigerator. My pump came with a convenient cooler pack that fit right into the carrying bag, with an ice pack and all. I'd freeze the ice pack the night before and pop it into the cooler bag the next morning. This kept my expressed milk cold until I got home nine hours later when I could finally place the bottles in my own fridge.

If your pump doesn't come with a cooler bag, you could purchase a bag to put your milk in before you store it in the office refrigerator. As long as the bag is closed and labeled as yours, no one should worry about what's inside. My daughter is 19 months old now, and we're still nursing on demand.

Jaime Savino
South Windsor CT USA

Mother's Response

Your confidence when you return to work makes a difference in how things go. I returned to work part-time in the office at three months and full-time at six months. We did not have a common refrigerator; instead I used the cooler section of my pump bag to store my pumped milk.

It can be an educational process for employers/supervisors when they first encounter the needs of an employee who is breastfeeding. Your confidence in expressing your needs is beneficial. When my daughter was only nine months old, I started getting questions about how much longer I would need my designated pumping space, and my answer was, "She's still very young, I'll let you know when I no longer need the room, but it won't be before she's a year old."

Your milk is not a danger to your coworkers. I wouldn't make a fuss about it. You could use a small, insulated lunch bag to store your milk in the refrigerator. Unless your coworkers routinely raid each others' lunch bags (which I hope they don't!), they won't even know that your pumped milk is in the refrigerator. The US Centers for Disease Control does not list human milk as a body fluid that requires special handling precautions. Another option is to store your milk in the cooler section of your pump if your pump has cooler section. Pumped milk can also be stored at room temperature (68-72° F) for up to 10 hours.

I think it's beneficial to scope out your situation and develop a plan before you return to work (i.e. where and when you will pump). I went to my employer with my plan. I think it is easier to get what you need by doing that, rather than by asking the employer (who may not have encountered the needs of a breastfeeding employee before) what they will let you do. It is also helpful to view the situation as a learning process for yourself and your employer and know that adjustments to the plan might need to happen.

Remember that you may be paving the way for the next nursing mother who returns to work at your place of employment. You have a great opportunity to educate your employer about the benefits of supporting breastfeeding mothers in the workplace, such as reduced absenteeism, fewer sick days, and employee retention.

Ruth Roazen
Flagstaff AZ USA

Mother's Response

I pumped at work when my oldest son was a baby. The issue of storing my milk in a refrigerator where other employees kept their food was not raised. (This may be a case of "don't ask, don't tell.")

No one ever said, "Hey, what's that in the cooler?" I assume most of the women, and possibly a few of the men, knew what was going on, but no one made an issue of it. I did not make any big announcements of what I was doing, and it seemed to me that problems simply did not arise (as they might if you asked directly, "Do you think it would be disgusting if I stored my pumped milk next to your sandwich?").

Reasonable people who share a refrigerator at work will respect your personal boundaries without any discussion. They will not trespass by investigating what you have in your cooler, as long as you are discreet and do not make it into a "nursing issue."

Mary Hornyak
Bethesda MD USA

Mother's Response

It is smart, in my opinion, to think ahead when returning to work about not only how you will pump, but how to handle reactions from your coworkers. It amazes me how openly people will express their disgust about breastfeeding. Being prepared to handle these situations is good.

I didn't use the office refrigerator at all. I always stored my milk in the pump bag with ice packs. In my experience, when I used the fridge, I often forgot my milk and had to turn around and come back to work to retrieve it. It seemed much easier to just store everything with the pump because I have so many other things to keep track of.

If you use the fridge, put your milk in a little storage bag. This way, it just looks like another lunch. I wish you luck on your return to work. It can be hard, but is so rewarding to continue the breastfeeding experience.

Megan Little
Milford OH USA

Mother's Response

When I returned to work, I had a small zippered, insulated cooler. I made a label for it with my name on it and carried my milk containers in it discreetly back and forth to the refrigerator, which I shared with my coworkers. I never did tell my them what I was storing in my cooler, and everyone else just assumed it was my lunch.

As my son grew older and my supply slowly decreased, I found I could go longer in between pumping sessions and did not need to store quite as much milk in the company refrigerator. During the coldest months of the winter, I found I was able to store my cooler inside my car and my milk would stay chilled enough without refrigeration.

After my day care provider took another job and could no longer watch my son at her house, he entered day care. It actually turned out to be a wonderful option for us all. I did not realize that there was a facility located in the building next door to my job. Ian is just a three-minute walk away from me now during the day. Storing milk all day is no longer a challenge because I can walk over on my lunch break to visit him and nurse him. This eliminates an extra pumping session most days. I can also bring any milk that I have pumped so he can have it in the same day.

I have confided in a few of my coworkers that I pump at work. All are very supportive and understanding of what I am doing. A lot of my anxiety about the challenge of pumping during the work day was my own fear of what others would think and how I would be looked at. My fears turned out to be self-made and once I settled back into my work routine, things got easier for me every week. My son is 10 months old now, and I feel like a breastfeeding pro!

Jennifer Bair
Copiague NY USA

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