Ten Tips for Surgery as a Breastfeeding Mama

Having surgery while you’re breastfeeding your little one may not be ideal, but sometimes can’t be avoided. I just had surgery a few days ago for Thyroid Cancer, and I wish I had known some of these ahead of time! This was my first surgery besides my emergency cesarean, and I didn’t know what to expect. 

In case this is your first time too, here’s a brief timeline of what happened. First, we checked in and waited in the Family Lounge. When they called me back, I went to a small triage area where they took my vitals and had me change out of my clothes and into a hospital gown. From there, I said goodbye to my husband and was taken to the pre-operative preparation area. This is where I spoke with the Anesthesiologist and the Surgeon. Next was the surgery itself. After the surgery, I was in the Post-Anesthesia Care Unit. And finally, to the recovery area where I saw my husband again. 

So here are my ten tips to navigate all of that as a breastfeeding mother: 

1. Start a stash early. If you know about your surgery in advance, start pumping and saving milk up ahead of time. I used a Milky Milk Saver during the first couple of weeks post partum to catch my extra milk to save. We were able to use that milk for the two days I was away from my daughter.  Pumping once a day can also help to build a stash as well. 

 2. Have some help. My surgery was a two day endeavor. My Mother in Law came to help with both the baby and the toddler so that my husband could be with me as much as possible the day of surgery and day of discharge. If that isn’t an option, reach out to your friends and community. You can also look at Care.com or Sittercity to find someone to help. 

3. Let your doctor know. I was able to speak with my surgeon during my pre-op appointment regarding breastfeeding and pumping. We discussed what kind of anesthesia they usually use and asked her to put a note in my file requesting a breast pump in my recovery room. 

4. Make a mermaid bra. This was a tip from the amazingly kind nurse when I was getting ready in the triage area. I was nervous about my milk leaking during the surgery, but I could not wear my undergarments into the operating room due to sanitation reasons. We took four pieces of medical tape and taped my disposable nursing pads on instead.   The anesthesiologist was fine with this and it put my self conscious mind to rest. 

4. Bring your own pump. Even if you’ve talked to your surgeon ahead of time about getting one at the hospital, bring your own too. I packed mine in a small bag inside of my hospital bag. I was able to pump about an hour before my surgery in the triage room, and then gave it to my husband. I had the nurse write a note in my chart that they should send for it again immediately after surgery- while I was still in the post-anesthesia care unit. 

5. Disposable underwear and a pad. If your surgery is very soon after giving birth and you’re still experiencing Lochia, or even if it’s later on and you have some lingering incontinance, don’t be afraid to ask for some of those nice stretchy disposable undies and pads.  They won’t allow personal undergarments in the OR, but they can give you some temporary ones. Your nurses might even chuckle and say something about it being the easiest request they’ve had all day.

6. Request a pump as soon as you arrive in recovery. I must have been annoying in my persistence, but I’m glad of it. My hospital pump didn’t arrive until about four hours after my surgery. They had to get it from the maternity ward in another building. I used my personal pump twice during that time. Having the hospital pump was a lot more convenient for overnight for a few reasons: it was on rollers so I didn’t have to hold all the attachments and the machine on my lap whilst getting situated, it was much more efficient so I’m sure I pumped more than I would have with my normal pump, and it’s much quieter which I’m sure room mates in the recovery room appreciate. 

7. To dump or not to dump. You’ll hear varying opinions on this depending on who you ask – especially from the surgeon, the anesthesiologist, and the nurses. I decided to only dump the milk that I pumped immediately after surgery – while I was still in the post-anesthesia care unit.  I needed assistance from the nurse to attach my pump and get started so I felt there was probably still too much medication in my system to safely keep it. However, I kept all subsequent pumps because I was not on anything stronger than what they give to cesarean section mums. Make the best decision for you and your family. Kellymom.com has some great information regarding anesthesia and breastfeeding. 

8. Don’t stress the ounces. Pump when you can and don’t worry about whether you’re keeping up with demand. Post surgery your true focus should be on healing – your baby needs you healthy and strong! Any milk you get is a blessing and stressing about whether it’s enough could steal your joy. Set an alarm to pump every 2-3 hours as a reminder and then try to relax.  

9. Bring supplies. Make sure that you bring your other breastfeeding supplies with you as well. I had with me milk bags, a sharpie, and extra nursing pads. It made it much easier to store the milk and label all of them. Don’t rely on the hospital to have enough pump bottles to store everything you pump. 

10. Nurses are there to help. If you need help rinsing and washing the pump parts, ask! If you need a cooler with ice to keep it cold, ask! Nurses are great problem solvers and can help to make it easier on you to accomplish your goals. The call button is there for a reason.

I hope that you don’t have to use these tips, but if you do, I hope that they help your experience go smoothly!

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