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Back to Work After Maternity Leave

mother talking to baby

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Returning to your job after having a baby can be a major upheaval for you and your little one. There are new schedules to adjust to, caregivers to get to know, and complex emotions to face as you'll suddenly be apart for lengthy stretches during the day. It's enough to stress out any new mom.

But the way you tackle these challenges will impact how well your infant copes. "Babies are very in tune with their mother's feelings," says Lee Beers, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at Children's National Medical Center, in Washington, D.C. "If your child senses that you're calm and comfortable, he'll likely react more positively to the changes in his routine." Dr. Beers, a mother of two young kids, speaks from experience. She and other pediatricians share their strategies for making a seamless return to work.

Plan Ahead

During the first few weeks, you'll be figuring out how to juggle your job and your new-mom responsibilities. Being organized is essential for keeping all those balls in the air. "If you handle the logistical issues -- who's doing what and when in the household -- it helps you deal better with the emotional part," says Dr. Beers. Make a weekly schedule of dinners, chores, and baby care (whose turn is it to soothe your crying child in the middle of the night?). Try to keep your baby on a regular routine of naps, meals, bath, and bedtime so she starts to anticipate what comes next.

Building a cushion into the morning rush is crucial. "About a week before you return, try out your new schedule," advises Abby Geltemeyer, M.D., assistant professor of pediatrics at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston and a mother of four. "See whether you have enough time to get the diaper bag packed, the bottles ready, and your baby changed, dressed, and dropped off." If not, this is your chance to make adjustments.

Start Pumping

If you plan to continue nursing, you should begin freezing milk several weeks before your return to build up a healthy supply for daytime feedings. You'll also want to get your baby used to drinking from a bottle: Most experts advise introducing it when he's 2 to 4 weeks old. Make sure you use low-flow nipples, which are designed to function much like yours, so they'll feel more familiar to your child.

Find out ahead of time if and where you can pump on the job. It might even be worth investing in a second machine that you leave at work. "I kept one pump at home and rented a hospital-grade model for the office," says Dr. Beers. She also invested in a special bag to steam-sterilize the attachments in the microwave at the end of the day.

Even if you choose not to pump at work, there's no need to wean your baby. You can breastfeed in the mornings and evenings, and your milk supply will gradually adjust so that you don't become engorged during the day.

Soften the Separation

Although a 3-month-old is too young to experience classic separation anxiety, many mothers notice that their infant tends to become fussier when her environment changes. To help your baby adjust more quickly to her new child-care arrangement, spend short periods away from her before you go back. "This helps her learn that it's perfectly normal for other people to take care of her too," says Dr. Beers.

Start your baby in child care (or have your mom or a sitter begin on-the-job training) several days to a week before you return. This will help your child get familiar with the routine and reduce your worries about her first day without you. Pack an item of your clothing, which carries your comforting smell. Rachel Plotnick, M.D., a pediatrician at Greater Baltimore Medical Center and a mother of two, adds that it's often easier for new moms to restart work midweek; that way you'll only have a few days to wait until the weekend.

Anticipate Snafus

No matter how foolproof your work and child-care arrangement may seem, there will almost certainly be times when things don't go smoothly. Babies and sitters get sick. Day-care centers may close for a maintenance day. Your boss might need you to stay after hours to complete a project. So you'll want to have a backup plan (or two) in place. Line up alternative caregivers -- your partner? a neighbor? your MIL? -- and ask about your child-care provider's sick-kid policy. And look for emergency child-care resources in your area.

It may sound like a lot of legwork, but the rewards for thorough preparation will pay off: Your baby will be well cared for, you'll be more content (and productive) at your job, and, best of all, you and your child can enjoy a happy reunion at the end of every day.

Originally published in the May 2012 issue of Parents magazine.

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