When to Start Expressing Breast Milk

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Published On
06 Jul, 2021
Read Time
5 minutes

Parents can express breast milk in a variety of ways - by hand, with a manual breast pump, or using an electric breast pump.

No matter which type of pump you choose, they all work in pretty much the same way. They express milk from your breast by mimicking the action of your little one suckling around your nipple and areola.

Electric breast pumps express breast milk in a cycle of around 50 to 90 sucks per minute, just like a baby! If you opt for a manual hand-held pump, you're in control and the pace of expression will be down to you. As your breast milk is expressed, it's collected and can be transferred to a sterile bottle, pouch, or bag to be stored for use later. 

It can be tricky to know how and when to start expressing milk, so let's run through some advice and top tips for pumping success.

Can I start expressing breast milk while pregnant?

During pregnancy, you can hand express milk known as colostrum and store it in the freezer in oral syringes to give to your baby once they arrive.

You should never use a breast pump during pregnancy, and always discuss hand expression during pregnancy with your midwife or health care provider first. They can help you decide if it's right for you and your baby, and help you get started safely.

When can I start expressing milk using a pump?

Most health professionals recommend that you focus on establishing your breastfeeding routine first. You should make sure that you and your baby are comfortable with breastfeeding before you introduce a breast pump.

However, some parents are advised by their midwife or lactation consultant to express in the first few weeks after birth due to breastfeeding difficulties.

If you're very uncomfortable with a full feeling in your breasts during the first few weeks after your baby is born, you may want to relieve engorgement with an occasional expressing session. This should only be a short session though, simply serving to give you relief.

How to start expressing breast milk

You can choose to express breast milk with a breast pump or by hand.

Whichever method you choose, there are a few things you can do to help make it easier:

  • Find a comfortable and quiet place and think about what will make you relaxed. Maybe some music will help?
  • Keep everything you need close to hand - a sterilised breast pump and container, a drink, snack, your phone, the TV remote, and something to help you focus on your baby if they're not there with you (perhaps a photo, video or even their blanket).
  • Make sure you've washed your hands and then get comfortable.
  • You're trying to emulate the sensation of your baby nuzzling as they feed, so gently massaging your breast, including the nipple area, can help to kick start your breastfeeding hormones.

If you're using a breast pump for expressing, there are a few extra steps you'll need to consider before starting:

  • Clean and sterilise all parts of your breast pump before each use.
  • Assemble the pump according to the manufacturer's instructions.
  • Store expressed breast milk in a sterile container. Using pre-sterilised pouches is a great idea, as you can express directly into them and then just pop them in the fridge or freezer - no decanting, no mess, and no waste!

Expressing breast milk by hand

Expressing by hand means that you can encourage milk to flow from a particular part of your breast. This can help if one of your milk ducts is blocked.

To express breast milk by hand:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Use the palm of your hand to cup your breast, with your thumb positioned above the nipple.
  • Compress and then release your nipple. Do this until your breast milk starts flowing.
  • Continue until the milk flow stops on the breast and then repeat the cycle on the other breast.
  • Once you've completed the cycle on both breasts, remember to store your breast milk in a sterile container.

Expressing breast milk with a pump

When you're expressing breast milk, start by making sure your breast is fully in the horn of the breast pump. You need to create a seal to get things working efficiently.

If you're using an electric pump, begin slowly at first while ensuring that the pump is in the correct position and feels comfortable. You should be able to see the breast milk flowing into the attached bottle. If you can't, it's worth trying to adjust the pump to get a better seal on your breast.

While you're expressing, use one hand to massage your breast from the armpits towards the nipple.

Be sure to express until the milk flow stops on each breast. How long this will take can vary for every mum, and even from one day to the next. Don't worry if you only get a little milk though, everyone is different, and it will get easier.

If you're having problems expressing breast milk, you might like to try something called breast compressions while you're expressing. It will help to stimulate additional let-downs and thoroughly drain your milk ducts.

After expressing milk from one breast, repeat the cycle on the other.

Top tips for expressing milk

  1. Choose a comfortable place and position to express: It could take a while to get a good amount of breast milk from your pump - especially if you're just starting. So, grab a snack and a glass of water - hydration is important - find a comfortable spot, pop on the TV or an episode of your favourite podcast, and relax! Pumping shouldn't hurt. If it does, you can try adjusting the size and/or position of your pump's breast shield.
  2. Keep connected to your baby: Oxytocin (the hormone that triggers your let-down reflex) is produced when you watch, touch, smell and think of your baby. Keeping them close, practising skin-to-skin contact, or looking at photos of them if you're away from home can all help when it comes to expressing breast milk.
  3. Take it slow: If you've opted for an electric breast pump, you might see the highest setting and think that's the best way to get a good amount of milk. But taking your time and getting into the correct position might be a better idea to express your milk effectively. You don't want to feel rushed or stressed, so give yourself plenty of time!
  4. Try a little massage: Lots of people find that they're able to express more breast milk if they massage as they pump. You can buy special breast massagers or do it by hand!
  5. Multitask by pumping both breasts at once (or pump while breastfeeding): If you have a wearable or double pump, you can express from both boobs at once! And a single pump means that your baby can feed from one breast, while you catch let-down and express from the other.
  6. Don't forget to let your boobs rest: Breastfeeding and expressing breast milk is hard work, so it's important to take care of yourself and remember to take regular breaks! We've gathered some tips to help you deal with painful nipples should you experience any pain while feeding.

Don't forget

Expressing breast milk isn't plain sailing for everyone. Don't be afraid to ask your midwife or health visitor for advice and support if you're struggling.

When is the best time to express milk?

Remember, every time you express, you're tricking your body into thinking that your baby has taken a feed! Even if you express and no milk comes out at all, you're placing the order for milk to be made later.

  • Want to store some milk in the fridge or freezer for later? Express in the morning, as it's the most productive time. This is because your milk-producing hormones have been doing their stuff at night.
  • Wanting to let your partner do the night feed? If you've expressed in the evening, you can give your partner the milk ready for them to lead the feed. Better still, expressing at night means the milk will contain sleep-promoting hormones. Just remember to label the container with the time you expressed it, so you know that milk is especially for night-time feeds.
  • Want to boost your breast milk supply? Express after each daytime feed to increase the order with the milkman!
  • Feeling engorged and sore? Express little and often, whenever you need relief from discomfort and sore nipples.

If your baby was born prematurely, they'll often still be able to take small feeds of breast milk. These first tastes should be given through a syringe and help coat their mouth with the immune-protecting components of breast milk.

If you need support with expressing milk for your premature baby, speak to your midwife or a healthcare professional.

Every breastfeeding journey is different, and the choice to continue or stop expressing breast milk at any stage is entirely up to you!

If you decide to stop, you might have mixed emotions during the process of weaning away from breastfeeding or using a breast pump. The truth is, there's no right or wrong time or technique, just whenever feels best for you.

The amount of time that transitioning away from using a breast pump takes varies, but the process should be gradual to give you and your little one time to adjust. It's a good idea to:

  • Begin by reducing each pumping session by a few minutes at a time
  • Gradually decrease the number of pumping sessions per day
  • Slowly lengthen the amount of time between your pumping sessions.

If you're unsure, it's a good idea to speak to your doctor or alactation consultantfor advice.