10 breast pumping tips

Breast pumping experiences vary widely from mother to mother. Some mothers may pump several times a day to provide milk for a baby who hasn’t mastered the art of breastfeeding. Some may pump only once in a while when they need to leave their baby and a bottle of pumped breast milk with a caregiver. Others may never find a need to use a breast pump. Many who express their milk often pump because they need to return to work or school while their baby is still nursing. 

Whatever the case may be, there is one thing most nursing mothers have in common: It’s a sure bet they don’t love pumping. (Does anybody?) 

Here are 10 tips that may not necessarily make pumping fun, but may make it easier and a lot less frustrating.

1. Be prepared. 

Make sure you choose a good pump that is well-suited to your particular needs (you can learn more about the differences in breast pumps in our slideshow here). Purchase a new breast pump, or rent one that is hospital-grade and designed for multiple users. Although you may consider saving money by borrowing a pump from a friend or relative, there are many reasons breast pumps should not be shared including the risk of bacterial contamination or decreasing motor function over time. (Most breast pump motors are designed to function at full strength for about one year of daily use, so if this is your second or third child, you’ll likely need to rent or purchase a new pump.) 

A provision of the Affordable Care Act that has been in effect since August 2013 may make getting a breast pump easier, as it requires insurance companies to cover the cost of a breast pump. Although this rule does not specify the type of pump, most insurance companies do follow the physician’s recommendation. 

Keep in mind that it’s a good idea to know how to hand express your milk too (learn how here). For some mothers, this is a more efficient means of milk removal than pumping. Even for those who prefer to pump, hand expression might be necessary if there's a power outage or if you lose an important pump piece—such as the tubing or flange—while traveling. 

2. Stock up early. 

If you know you are going to need a stash of milk for your baby (usually due to a return to work or school), begin storing your milk several weeks in advance. Choose a time in-between your baby’s usual feedings to pump. 

There’s no need to wait any specific amount of time after feeding to pump; your breasts make milk 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. When your breasts are “full,” milk production does slow down, but when they are “less full,” milk production actually speeds up. Feed your baby on request, and pump in-between. 

Do not worry about running out of milk for your baby’s next feeding. Your body will replace the milk you remove. It’s possible that your baby may drink less milk during his next feeding and be hungry for the feeding after that a little sooner than usual. You’re likely to find that the following day, you’ll produce a little more milk to meet the demands of both your baby and the pump. 

3. Pump while breastfeeding. 

The best let-down trigger is your baby; he is, after all, the natural “demand” for your milk “supply.” 

Some mothers find that they express the most milk when they pump on one breast while their baby breastfeeds on the other breast. It makes sense—the act of nursing the baby stimulates the body to produce hormones that trigger the release of milk. 

If your baby feeds on only one breast, it is possible he may be hungry for his next feeding sooner than usual. Go ahead and feed him; there’s no need to wait. In a day or two, your body will adjust and you’ll produce a little more milk to meet the demands of both your baby and the pump. In the meantime, keep responding to your baby’s hunger cues

4. Have double—or triple—equipment. 

If you are pumping your milk during breaks at work, make sure you have two or three sets of clean flanges at the start of the day. Have one set assembled and ready to go, so you can make the most of your break time. 

After pumping, put your milk (stored in bottles or bags) into a refrigerator or insulated cooler with ice packs. Then, slip your used flanges into a zipper-style storage bag so you can wash them later, at home. 

Note that breast pump flanges are not quite “one size fits all.” Manufacturers offer several sizes since women’s breasts come in a variety of sizes and shapes. Since extra flanges will need to be purchased apart from your pump, make sure you try out the pump and determine what size is comfortable before ordering more. If you’re not sure how to “fit” your flange, you might want to schedule a visit with a lactation consultant

5. Establish a pumping routine. 

Create a series of steps that you go through just about every time you pump. These steps act as cues to your body, and may include things like: getting a fresh glass of water, hanging a “do not disturb” sign on your office door, looking at a picture or video of your baby, calling your baby’s caregiver for an update, or dimming your office lights. Some mothers use auditory cues, such as relaxation music, breastfeeding “hypnosis” tracks, or recordings of their baby’s sounds (cooing, not crying!). These cues can stimulate the mother’s let-down due to the brain-body connection; this occurs in much the same way that Pavlov’s dogs developed a physical response (salivating) to an audible cue (a bell rung at mealtime). 

For many mothers, feelings of stress may inhibit the let-down. If you pump less milk than you feel you need to on one occasion due to being rushed or changes in your environment, this does not signal a long-term problem. Your milk supply—or, more to the point, the let-down reflex that enables your body to make the milk available—will rebound next time, when you are not feeling the same stress.

6. Massage your breasts. 

Don’t skip this step! Massaging and compressing areas of the breast that feel firm can improve milk expression. In other words, mothers tend to express more milk when they massage the breast in conjunction with breast pumping. 

You will want to experiment with the kind of massage that feels most comfortable to you. Some experts recommend a “massage, stroke, shake” approach, either in conjunction with manual expression or breast pumping. Others recommend massaging in a circular motion, similar to a breast self-exam. 

Make sure to massage your breast for about 1–3 minutes before you put the flanges on your breasts and begin pumping. For some women, this will be enough stimulation for them to pump the amount of milk they wish. Others will have more success if they massage while pumping, especially if using a hands-free device to hold the flanges. 

7. Pump both breasts simultaneously. 

Many women report that they are able to pump more milk when they pump both breasts at the same time. This may be due to the fact that more of the hormone prolactin is released by the pituitary gland when mothers pump simultaneously as opposed to pumping alternate breasts. Higher levels of prolactin result in greater milk production. 

A hands-free nursing bra that secures the flanges in place may be helpful, and free up your hands for breast massage or other tasks while pumping. Several hands-free bras are available; if you are crafty, you can make your own by cutting a couple of small holes into a sports bra that is supportive but not restrictive. 

If you are pumping while seated at a desk, you may find it helpful to lean forward just a little, and allow the bottles to rest on your thighs, so gravity can aid the flow of milk. (Just be sure to check your progress periodically, or the collection bottles may overflow!) 

8. Schedule pumping breaks. 

Remember that breastfeeding relies on supply and demand. Experiences vary, but most women find they have the best results when they schedule in short pumping breaks of 15–20 minutes at intervals consistent with when their baby would typically eat (about every three hours or so). When possible, continue to pump for about 2–5 minutes after the last drop of milk is expressed. Breasts that are more fully drained (remember, breasts are never actually “empty”) produce milk more quickly. 

When complementary foods are added to your baby’s diet, and his need for breast milk decreases, you may be able to reduce the number of pumping breaks to two per day during regular work hours. However, if you notice that your milk supply drops, you may need to add an additional pumping session back into your schedule. Supply-wise, it is better to have more short sessions than to have fewer long ones. 

If your schedule is more flexible, or if you are pumping to establish a stockpile of milk in addition to feeding your baby, choose a time about halfway between his usual feedings. Drain your breasts fully following the same 15–20 minutes (plus 2–5 extra minutes) pattern. Your breasts will continue to make milk, and you will be able to feed your baby again when he is hungry. Feeding in response to your baby’s hunger cues will ensure that your milk supply adjusts to both pumping and feeding. 

9. Divide pumped milk into small servings. 

If your baby usually feeds about eight times in a 24-hour period, you can estimate that he will need about 2–4 ounces of your milk per feeding while you are apart. If you are supplying your child’s caregiver with milk based on that estimate and she is routinely running out of milk, you may want to explore how the milk is being fed in your absence. Is the caregiver preparing “larger” quantities of milk at each feeding? Is she routinely discarding “extra” milk? Is she using paced bottle-feeding techniques, allowing breaks in-between and responding to the child’s cues, or is she watching the bottle and trying to empty it? 

To ensure less waste, freeze your milk in 1- or 2-ounce quantities. Discuss your baby’s small stomach size with his caregiver, and encourage frequent, small feedings rather than less frequent, larger feedings. This will help ensure that the milk you pump while you are separated is put to good use, as well as help alleviate any concern about your ability to pump enough to meet your baby’s needs. 

If you want to combine the milk expressed from different pumping sessions, make sure you cool the newest batch thoroughly before adding it to previously pumped (and now frozen) milk; this will reduce bacterial growth. (Get more storage tips here.) 

10. Breastfeed often! 

For working mothers—or, really, any mothers—to maintain a good milk supply, you want to breastfeed as often as you can when you and your baby are together. Whenever possible, make breastfeeding the last thing you do before you part. Similarly, make it the first thing you do when you reunite. 

If you feel your milk supply decreasing over the course of a work week, consider focusing the weekend on your baby. Put your feet up, keep a good book or the TV remote nearby, get skin-to-skin with your baby, and offer your baby a feeding any time you notice an early sign of hunger

If expressing your milk while apart from your baby seems difficult or stressful, you may want to encourage “reverse cycle feeding.” Reverse cycle feeding focuses attention on the baby’s nutritional needs per 24-hour period, rather than during the day. With reverse cycle feeding, you allow the baby to feed as much as possible in the evening and into the night. During the day, when he is with a caregiver, the baby naturally has fewer feedings. When the baby is ready to begin solids, the caregiver can focus on those foods and sometimes forgo milk feedings altogether. Your baby is likely to get all the milk he needs in the early mornings, evening, and nights when you are together. If you are able to delay your return to work until your baby is starting complementary foods (about 6 months of age), he may never need to use a bottle and you’ll never have a need to pump. 

Since reverse cycle feeding can leave some mothers feeling low on sleep, it may not be a great solution long-term. However, for mothers who are comfortable co-sleeping, for a baby who doesn’t like to take a bottle, or for a short time (such as the few months between when you return to work and when your baby begins solids), this can be a useful strategy for moms who want to avoid pumping.

Last updated August 15, 2020

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