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Once you're into the swing of it, expressing breast milk can help you be more flexible with your baby's feeds, and can also help relieve your boobs and give them a break.

How Should I Start Expressing Breast Milk?

Once you're ready to start expressing breast milk, it’s important to remember that everyone is different, milk supplies vary and what matters most is that you 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 are manual or electric pumps, and you can also express breast milk using your hands.

The truth is, it might take you a while to get the hang of expressing, and that’s OK! Just like your baby, you’re new to all this. It does take a little practice but being comfortable can 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 help you be more flexible with your baby's feeds, and can also help relieve your boobs and give them a break.

When to start expressing

Most health professionals recommend that you focus on establishing your breastfeeding routine first. 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.

How to start expressing milk with a breast 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 and make sure 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 boob. How long this will take can vary for every mom, 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. These help to stimulate additional let-downs and thoroughly drain your milk ducts.

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

Preparing your equipment for pumping

There are a few steps you should take before expressing breast milk with a pump. All your feeding equipment – including your pump and bottles – need to be prepared and sterilized.

  • 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 refrigerator or freezer – no decanting, no mess, and no waste!

Once you’ve completed the above steps, the following points can make it easier to express:

  • 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, cell 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

Not everyone chooses to use a breast pump to express breast milk for their baby. Expressing by hand means that you can encourage milk to flow from a particular part of your breast and can be helpful 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.

Top tips for expressing breast 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. 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.

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 first tastes should be given through a syringe and help to 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 healthcare professional.

Expressing breast milk FAQs

  • When should you express breast milk throughout the day?

    Remember, each 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 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.
  • How do breast pumps work?

    Breast pumps mimic the action of your little one by suckling around your nipple and areola to bring the milk out. 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.

    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 expression will be down to you.

    As your milk is expressed, it's collected in the container 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 comfortable with the action of pumping.

    Just try to relax, think of your baby, and take your time – you’ve got this mama!

  • How do I know if my breast is empty after expressing?

    While you’re breastfeeding or expressing, your boobs will never be fully drained of milk. But you can tell if you’re ready to stop expressing by gently shaking your breasts to see if they feel soft and light, rather than hard and heavy.

    If your breast milk stops flowing while you're pumping but your boobs still feel full, that let-down session has likely finished, and another will begin again in a few minutes.

  • How fast do breasts refill with milk?

    While you’re breastfeeding your baby or expressing, your boobs will never be fully empty of milk, but the flow of your breast milk can reduce to the point where no significant amount can be expressed. At this stage, it can take around half an hour to build back up to an adequate flow, or up to an hour for peak flow.
  • Can you start breast pumping 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.