Once you're ready to start expressing breast milk, it’s good to remember that everyone is different, milk supplies vary and it’s important to find a way to express milk that works for you and your baby.
Breast pumps come in all shapes and sizes, just like boobs! There's manual pumps, electric pumps and wearable pumps. You can also express breast milk using your hands.
It might take you a while to get the hang of expressing using a breast pump or your hands. That’s OK though. Just like your baby, you’re new to all this. It does take a bit of practice but being comfortable can really help your milk let down. So, try to relax and take your time.
Once you're into the swing of it, expressing breast milk can really help you be a little more flexible with your baby's feeds. It can also help relieve your boobs and give them a break.
How do breast pumps work?
Whether you’re using a manual, electric, single, double or wearable pump, they all work in pretty much the same way to express milk from your breast. They mimic the action of your little one by suckling around your nipple and areola to bring the milk out. Electric breast pumps will express your milk to a cycle of around 50-90 sucks per minute, just like your baby. If you opt for a manual hand-held pump, the motion of your expressing will be down to you.
As your milk is expressed, it's collected in the bottle part of your breast pump and can be transferred to bottles or storage bags to be stored for use later. Just like breastfeeding and getting that perfect latch, it can take time to get totally comfortable with the action of pumping. But just try to relax, think of your baby and take your time, you’ve got this mama!
When to start expressing milk
Most health professionals recommend that you focus on establishing your breastfeeding routine first and make sure that you and your baby are comfortable with breastfeeding before introducing 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 in 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.
Expressing during pregnancy
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 before you get started.
Ahead of expressing, you should…
- Clean and sterilize all parts of your breast pump before each use.
- Assemble the pump according to the manufacturer's instructions.
- Remember that breast milk storage should take place in a sterile container. Using pre-sterilized 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, no waste!
How to start expressing milk
You can choose to express breast milk with a breast pump or by hand. Whichever 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?
- Gather all you need – a sterilized breast pump and container, a drink, snack, 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.
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 again 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 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 a breast compression 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 again on the other.
When should you express breast milk?
Remember, each time you express, you’re tricking your body into thinking that your baby has really 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 stash 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 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.
Expressing breast milk for premature babies
If your baby was born prematurely, they’ll often still be able to take small feeds of breast milk. These should be given through a syringe, or you can soak it into cotton buds to give them a taste. This helps coat their mouth with the immune-protecting components of breast milk and can also encourage them to move onto more routine feeding. If you need support with expressing milk for your premature baby, speak to your midwife or healthcare professional.
Top tips for expressing milk
- 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 out. So, grab a snack, 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 pumps breast shield.
- 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, practicing 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.
- 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!
- 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!
- Multitask by pumping both breasts at once (or pump while breastfeeding): If you have a 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.
- 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.
- Ask for help if you need it: 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.