Before I had a child of my own, I loved bringing lots of baby clothes to new parents when I visited them postpartum. I was making a terrible mistake.

I’ve always enjoyed thrifting. And, I’ve always loved baby clothes. I didn’t realize I was essentially bringing new parents a mountain of laundry – more clothes to sort and wash and dry and fold when they’re barely sleeping.

I’ve changed my approach since giving birth in 2015. These days when I visit postpartum parent friends, I drop off a pan of hot, homemade lasagna and ask them a question: Would you like me to throw in a load of laundry or deep-clean your bathroom? No one passes. I clean or do laundry. I don’t ask to hold the baby.

But how can we support our postpartum co-workers? It probably isn’t professional to show up at a co-worker’s door and volunteer to scrub their bathtub or try to wash their unmentionables.

In recognition of Women’s History Month, here is a list for co-workers, managers and company leaders to consider when supporting postpartum employees.

Not all of these will be realistic or practical for every company. That’s OK. But this list will help you think critically about how to support employees in what is one of the most challenging and potentially fatal times of their lives.

What has helped your postpartum employees? Does your company have an innovative program or a unique approach? Fearless would love to hear about it. Email us.

Here is a list to hold onto:

1. Create a workplace support group for postpartum workers or parents of young children.

Postpartum support groups for workers are a relatively new phenomenon. Employees who are in the same sleepless trenches of early parenthood can come together and talk openly about their experiences and challenges as working parents. They feel less alone. Postpartum support groups can also result in deep bonds among employees from different departments who normally might not feel like they have much in common – they will form relationships and might be more likely to collaborate in the future.
A postpartum support group can also partner with the company’s human resources department in case an employee needs to access mental health support or other services. (More than half of maternal deaths in the United States, 52%, occur after the birth. Suicide is the No. 1 cause of maternal death in the first year postpartum.)

The Iowa Chapter of Postpartum Support International has resources on supporting parents in the thick of the “fourth trimester” and beyond.

Amy Brooks Murphy. Photo by Nicole Grundmeier.

Des Moines-based educator and business owner Amy Brooks Murphy of Before and After the Birth offers services and advice to companies that want to create a supportive postpartum environment in the office. She is also one of the most inclusive and empathetic humans I know.

2. Don’t make assumptions about infant feeding. Avoid comments or questions about infant feeding, unless the postpartum employee asks you.

There is nothing more personal – and potentially painful – as infant feeding choices. Questions and assumptions about infant feeding choices can affect a co-worker’s mental health, even if they come from a place of kindness.

I have a friend whose micro preemie daughter came home from the hospital with a feeding tube. The mom didn’t know how to answer common questions like, “Are you breastfeeding or bottle feeding your baby?” The questions kicked her hard when she was already feeling down.

A close relative of mine, who works in marketing, previously had a male boss who assumed she would be done breastfeeding at six months postpartum and then again at one year postpartum. He seemed irritated by her need for pumping breaks. My relative felt pressured to end her breastfeeding journey early (she ultimately did). The World Health Organization’s advice is to breastfeed for “two years of age or beyond,” but the United States lacks the support systems necessary to make this realistic or practical for many parents who want to attempt it.

Often, new parents feel judgment no matter what feeding choice or choices they make.

The bottom line: Don’t make assumptions about what is good or right or best when it comes to infant feeding choices. Every family is different, and every baby is different. Only the postpartum parent knows what is the healthiest approach for their family.

A good approach: Tell a new parent congratulations. Then ask the parent a nonjudgmental question such as, “How can I support you right now?” “Would you like some cold water?” “I’m about to run to the corner store. What type of snack would you like me to bring back for you? My treat.” (Pregnant and breastfeeding people need more calories than they typically do, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.)

3. If possible, allow postpartum employees to work remotely for as long as possible – especially during the germy winter months.

This isn’t going to work for every company. Elementary school teachers, for example, can rarely work from home. But for postpartum employees who can work remotely, try to give them choices and flexibility in this space.

This is especially true during cold, flu, respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and COVID-19 seasons. When an employee sends an infant to child care, their kid often brings home illnesses from being exposed to numerous other households – causing the employee to miss time to care for the child and potentially get sick themselves. My daughter was hospitalized at Blank Children’s Hospital in January 2016 when she contracted RSV at 2 weeks of age. I also got sick. Coughing with a fresh C-section incision is not something I would wish on anyone.

If an employee can care for their child and successfully work at home, everyone is more likely to stay healthy. Employees are more productive when they aren’t, for example, having to suction their child’s nose multiple times daily.

Flexible scheduling and work-from-home options also enable parents to more easily take babies to well-child exams and schedule their own visits with a doctor or midwife, mental health appointments, pelvic floor therapy and more. As a society, we are slowly recognizing just how important these appointments are for ensuring the entire family unit is healthy and thriving.

4. Set up a postpartum support room/lactation room that is used only for postpartum parents.

This might not be realistic for every company. But generally, postpartum support/lactation rooms should be used only by parents who need them.

I once attended a seminar about public speaking. The person I was partnered with, an engineer I had not met previously, wanted to use the lactation room as a place to practice on our speeches. At first, I thought he was kidding. But then he started to walk into the lactation room. I put my foot down and said we weren’t going to practice there – what if someone needed to use the room?

Ideally, a lactation room should have a comfortable chair, a small refrigerator for storing breast milk, a water supply such as a sink to wash pump parts, paper towels or cloths, a changing station and a garbage can. (Bonus points for high-protein, shelf-stable snacks.) This might not be realistic or affordable for smaller businesses. However, employees from companies of all sizes are often willing to pitch in and donate items to help a business create a comfortable postpartum support room. They’ve been there. They remember. They want life to be easier and healthier for the next generation of parents and babies.

Under the recently updated federal Fair Labor Standards Act, employers must “provide reasonable break time for an employee to express breast milk for their nursing child for one year after the child’s birth each time such employee has need to express the milk. Employees are entitled to a place to pump at work, other than a bathroom, that is shielded from view and free from intrusion from co-workers and the public.”

Hopefully, we are past the time when parents were sometimes forced to pump breast milk in public restrooms.

5. Set up a Meal Train for postpartum parents and drop off food without making contact with anyone in the home.

Bringing hot, homemade meals to an employee who recently gave birth or adopted a child is a way to help the employee feel connected with the company and co-workers when they’re not physically working in the office.

I’m a big fan of Meal Train. Before an employee leaves for parental leave, you can ask the employee if they’d like you to set up a Meal Train to support them postpartum. If the employee says yes, you can set it up and share it with the company. No one is required to participate. But co-workers who wish to participate can drop off a meal completely without contact (again, remember germs).

6. Avoid telling your own birth/postpartum war stories unless asked.

Those stories can come off as dismissive to what the new parent has just endured. It can sound as if you’re saying, “All birth is hard. Suck it up, buttercup!” even if that is not what you mean.
Give the employee time and space to talk about their birth and postpartum experience, if they want to. Do more listening than talking.

Don’t say, “I understand.” Every experience is different and unique. You can’t truly understand what someone just went through. Instead, say something like, “I can relate. Here is why.” Or simply, “Thank you for telling me that. It helps me understand more about what you’re experiencing.” Sometimes people just need to vent.

7. Focus on fluids: Water breaks and bathroom breaks are critical.

Again, this will vary widely among companies, jobs and work environments. But whenever possible, give pregnant and postpartum employees unlimited restroom breaks and unlimited access to cold water.
Every postpartum parent is different. But almost everyone (yes, even people who gave birth surgically) experiences lochia, or postpartum vaginal bleeding, for weeks following a birth.

New parents who need to be on blood thinners postpartum or who have certain health conditions can experience lochia for months and months postpartum. Access to a bathroom is critical. Also important: Lifting or moving heavy objects can also increase the flow of lochia, although it is something that is rarely discussed openly.

Ask your employees how you can best support them postpartum. Sometimes, that means amending tasks or work temporarily. And that’s OK.

8. Be mindful of your words.

Never make comments about a person’s postpartum body – or anyone’s body, really. There are better ways to make conversation and connections.

Ask them how they’re doing. Sometimes, after a person gives birth, people ask only about the baby. Ask how they’re really doing. Be ready to just listen without judgment.