“I’ve hit a new low,” my oldest friend Mary sent me a grim text message. “I’m pumping in the dirty ferry bathroom.”

“I’m so sorry,” I texted back from the confines of a dusty closet that I’ve self-appointed as a pump station. “I can’t even meet you for the train home, I’m going to miss it. I can’t leave this room without getting two more ounces.”

CDC data shows that more women are trying to feed their babies breast milk for up to a year. But the average commute time for the American worker keeps increasing. This means that more nursing parents than ever before are navigating super-commutes, facing a gauntlet of train delays (hello @MTA), semi-public pumping dilemmas, and dehydration desperation that obstruct the odds of breastfeeding success. I should know: I was one of them. Having been a card-carrying member of the cooler-toting mom club, I was curious about how other moms make long daily commutes work for their families. Here’s the deal on what to expect when you become a breastfeeding mama with several hours of transit time to and from work.

A woman uses a tablet during her commute

Be Geared Up

In terms of equipment, a long commute can mean adding an extra heap o’ stuff to the load of pumping gear you’re carting around with you. Or it could just mean you become an efficiency extraordinaire. Some parents travel with an electric pump motor, flanges and bottles to pump into, a cord to plug into the wall, and a cute little cooler, which can usually hold 16 to 20 ounces worth of plastic bottles, along with the recommended three ice packs. If you’re able to pump more than that during a workday, an easy hack is to transfer the milk you pump directly into plastic milk bags, slap on a date and approximate amount contained, make double-sure all the zips are locked, and lay those babies flat in your cooler. No second cooler necessary.

Some people feel more comfortable using a manual pump. It’s quieter and can be used in places where there’s no electrical outlet. And then there are those of us who choose to bring both a manual and electric pump in case we get stranded on, say, the Staten Island Ferry. (Not that that’s ever happened to… us.) Whatever your gear preferences, remember to pass the cost up to your health insurance provider. The Affordable Care Act has been transformative in allowing parents to get access to pumps through insurance. Sometimes you need a prescription, depending on your coverage, but you should be able to finagle an electric pump with the help of your obstetrician/midwife, using insurance to defray the cost.

Other must-haves for the pump-at-work parent: an extra shirt or a sweater in case of a boob-leak emergency, a pumping bra, nursing-friendly shirts (think: any button-down or deep v-neck shirt), antibacterial hand sanitizer for before and after pump sessions, and a traveling stash of wipes.

A woman works on a train

Be Prepared to Take Shortcuts

Of course, many of us begin our #WAHM journey with ideas about how we’ll glide through our workdays with ease and return to our infants ready to snuggle and reconnect. The reality of pumping while working sometimes involves pumping and feeding before the alarm clock rings at 6am so you can catch a train. You may also have to pump the minute you get to a stable location and be prepared to stay late at work to get some extra ounces in before you hit the road.

Rebecca Perry, a teacher from New York City, committed to making the most of her drive to work by multitasking. “I struggled with low supply, so I figured I might as well take advantage of my long commute to get what I could,” she recalls. “I was still pumping two to three times per day at work on top of it. I would often power pump, since my commute would vary between 45-60 minutes in the morning and 50-120 minutes on the way home.” Perry ended up strapping on a hands-free pumping bra and driving to and from work while her electric pump took care of the rest. Now a breastfeeding veteran with three kids, she has been able to continue giving her youngest breastmilk for over two years.

One part of pumping on the go that we don’t always think of before it needs to be sorted out is the business of cleaning pump parts. Ideally, parts would be cleaned thoroughly with baby-friendly soap after each use and kept in a sterile place when not pumping. Since this isn’t always possible, sterile microwavable pump part bags may be the next best thing. Simply pop the parts in at the end of the day before packing them up for your return trip to work in the morning. It’s never a bad idea to give nipples, bottles, etc. a thorough cleaning by hand with soap and hot water on the weekends.

A smiling woman feeds her baby with a bottle

Be Willing to Compromise

Elizabeth Morris Lakes went back to work after three months of breastfeeding her child at home. “My office has two lactation rooms with sinks and fridges where I would pump, and I could rearrange my schedule to pump three times a day for 20 minutes each, essentially breaking up my hour lunch break,” she shares. “[Even though] it was essentially the ideal commuter situation, it meant that I basically never had a break for myself during the workday.” Morris Lakes was already pumping full-time for medical reasons, so when she returned home, her time to reconnect with her baby was cut drastically, and she had to fit in two or three more pump sessions before her day was through.

The compromise for Morris Lakes ended up being giving her baby formula. Beyond the physical difficulties of nausea that she felt while pumping and the logistical challenges of how to pump enough during the day, the constant struggle to make breastfeeding happen was keeping her from spending meaningful time with her child when work was over. “It was a huge relief [to quit pumping]. Suddenly, I could hold and play with my baby. I felt like I had my body back.” Morris Lakes was recognizing something that many parents find to be true: Though the benefits of breastfeeding our babies up to and beyond one year are huge, having a mother whose mental faculties are taxed beyond belief simply by the physical demands of breastfeeding is not a healthy trade-off.

Making a goal to breastfeed for a year or more as the World Health Organization suggests is admirable. But if you need to supplement or quit altogether due to your work schedule, you haven’t failed as a mother. When there are train hiccups, reroutes, and sometimes a sick passenger or two in the mix, the truth is that this not something you can will to work or make happen. Determination and a supportive network can make a huge difference in whether you meet your goal or not, of course. But nursing in spite of a daunting commute is an area where stressing out will actually decrease your supply and make you less likely to meet your goal. Be kind to yourself, and by all means get thee to a lactation consultant before you commit to going the distance.

How have you managed to juggle breastfeeding with a long commute? Tell us your tips on Twitter @BritandCo.

(Photos via Getty)