How to Transition Back to Work After Maternity Leave

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Just as new moms are getting into the rhythm of parenthood, reality hits for those who work away from home and it’s time to go back. Here are strategies to help plan and manage the transition back to work with confidence.

Coordinate. Schedule calls with the human resources department and your supervisor at least two weeks before maternity leave ends to confirm the return-to-work date and get questions answered in a timely manner.

“They’re looking at it from two different perspectives,” says Cheryl Wright, president of Darda Human Resources Advisors. “HR is looking at leave compliance policies, but there’s also the aspect of transitioning back into the work team—your supervisor or manager can help with that.”

Wright suggests asking HR questions such as: 

  • Have there been any changes to work policies and procedures? 
  • Are personnel working from home and/or alternating days in the office (due to COVID-19)? 
  • What are company policies for nursing mothers? Is taking time to pump a paid or unpaid break?
  • Is there a lactation room? If so, how do I access is it? 

For moms seeking more schedule flexibility upon return, Wright suggests opening the dialogue with HR (or the supervisor) sooner rather than later. “That allows the company time to figure out how to accommodate the request,” she says.

Also check in with one or two work colleagues. Find out what has changed in your absence to avoid surprises or a sense of disconnect from the team. Consider asking questions such as:

  • How has the team changed? Any new hires? Promotions? 
  • What projects is the team focused on? What projects have been completed?

Confirm and visit daycare. Even if you toured daycare prior to baby’s birth, schedule another visit a week or two before heading back to work.

Ask questions like:

  • What do I need to bring? 
  • Would it be helpful if I wrote out my baby’s schedule?
  • How do you put the babies down for naps?

A second visit closer to the time of going back to work was helpful to Kailee Noland, a pediatric physical therapist and mom of two. “It gave me a little bit of time and space to order things or run to the store,” she says. “We needed extra pacifiers for daycare and different kinds of bottle labels—things like that.” 

If your baby has special needs, go over specifics with your daycare provider in advance too. 

Prep baby for bottle-feeding. If you’re breastfeeding, introduce baby to a bottle at about four weeks of age, if you haven’t already. Noland recommends starting weekly (or more often) to ensure baby can take a bottle at daycare when the time comes. Consult your pediatrician with questions or concerns. 

Do a dry run. Visit your workplace a week or two before the first day. The short visit helped Noland ease back in, visit with coworkers, get her desk arranged, figure out where she was going to store the breast pump and milk, and to mentally prepare.

“You can plan as much as possible, but you don’t really know logistically what some of those things will look like until they’re here,” Noland says. “It gave me that first opportunity to really feel the magnitude and weight of being away from my babies.” 

You may also discover new traffic patterns and logistical snafus you hadn’t thought of when getting to daycare and work on time. 

Ease back in. If you can, gradually ease yourself and baby into the new routine. “I came back in the middle of the week and for the first week, I only worked half days,” says Alex Villalobos-McAnderson, a mindful leadership coach and mom of two boys. “This really helped with the hormones and getting comfortable with going back.”

Schedule appointments. As much as possible, get well-baby checkups and other personal appointments plugged into your calendar before returning to work to avoid the stress of squeezing them into your schedule later. 

Pumping at work. Planned pumping breaks can help train your body when to release milk, Noland says. Plan a mid-morning, lunchtime and mid-afternoon pump and maintain consistency in your schedule as much as possible during those first few weeks back. 

Noland also recommends moms store extra pump parts in their desks. “Inevitably you’re going to walk out the door one day and totally forget [the equipment]. It’s great to have one on reserve for days like that,” Noland says. “Usually insurance will cover the cost of those.” 

Villalobos-McAnderson says she pumped and stashed a surplus of milk in the freezer before heading back to work. “So, if I missed a pumping session, I didn’t stress about it.”

Know it may not be easy. Even moms who love their careers may still experience emotional bumps along the way while adjusting to time away from baby.

“I was surprised that with both my babies, I longed to be home with them,” says Noland, “especially in those early months when they were so small. It’s really hard to turn them over to someone else’s care. No daycare provider is ever going to be Mama, but usually people don’t get into childcare if they don’t love children. Know that they’re going to try to meet all of your needs. So, just honor whatever feelings you’re feeling and know they may last or may be transient.”

Know Your Rights -- Resources

Family & Medical Leave Act (FMLA)

U.S. Department of Labor: www.DOL.gov

Paid Family Leave (PFL)

Employment Development Department (EDD): www.EDD.ca.gov

Breastfeeding in the workplace
California Department of Public Health: www.cdph.ca.gov/breastfeeding

Christa Melnyk Hines is a nationally published freelance writer. She lives with her husband and two sons.

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