How To: Express breast milk (and why)

All your questions answered about how and why to express breast milk.

It’s entirely your choice whether or not you want to express breast milk – many women love the freedom it gives, many others only want to breastfeed directly. The decision will be easier to make once you know all the facts. Rest assured that whatever you decide, many Moms have made the same decision.

Why express?
There are two main reasons why Moms express breast milk. Firstly, expressing allows you some freedom to go out and let your partner feed your baby. It’s important for Dads to learn how to feed as it’s a special bonding time for them too. Expressing also gives you the opportunity to continue breastfeeding if you return to work.

Secondly, you can express your milk to stimulate your milk production and boost your milk supply. Your excess milk can be frozen and kept for later use, or you could donate it to an organisation like Milk Matters, to feed deprived infants who are unable to get breastmilk from their mothers. It is very useful to express when you have engorged breasts as it helps to relieve pain and pressure. Be cautious though, as too much pumping can make engorged breasts worse!

How to express?
Most Moms express their milk using an electric or manual pump. Some women prefer to express their milk by hand, but using a pump is easier and faster. Although it may feel strange at first, it won’t take long for you to get used to it. A double pump empties both breast in the same time as a single pump empties one breast, so if you are doing more than occasional pumping, it has a huge advantage over a single pump. This is particularly the case for working Moms expressing while at work.

When to express?
Most Moms don’t find the time to express until their baby is around four to six weeks old. It’s a good idea for your baby to become well attached and accustomed to feeding at your breast before offering expressed milk in a bottle. By this age, your baby should be feeding less often at night (hopefully twice a night) so your breasts will be full for the first morning feed. This means you can express after the first morning feed to empty them – for five minutes a side. Always express after rather than before a feed. In general, you will express more milk in the morning than in the evening.

If you are working, try and express around the same times you would normally feed your baby. Another good time to express is before you go to bed at night, if your baby has a long first evening sleep. For example, you could breastfeed at 7pm and express at 9.30pm before you go to bed. When your baby wakes for their first night feed around midnight, your partner could give the expressed milk from 6am and 9.30pm, so that you can get some unbroken sleep. The first few times you express, it’s natural to have low expectations for volume. Lactation Consultant Heather Wood finds that milk volume increases once new Moms get into a rhythm of expressing.

How to use a breast pump?
To use an electric pump, you put a breast shield over your nipple, turn the machine on, and let it suction your milk into a container. Manual pumps also use a shield, but you extract the milk by operating a squeeze mechanism or pulling a plunger with your hand. It usually takes ten to fifteen minutes to pump each breast with an electric pump and up to 45 minutes with a hand pump. It shouldn’t be painful and should feel just like your baby is suckling at your breast (well, not exactly the same, obviously). Initially you'll feel quite a yank from an automatic pump, so don’t be alarmed. Start with the lowest level, and turn it up once you get into the rhythm. Massaging your breast while you pump will make it easier to extract your milk more efficiently. Remember to sterilise the pump parts carefully after each session.
What bra is best?
It’s a good idea to buy a hands-free expressing bra so you don’t have to hold the shields on to your breasts. This will allow you to read or chat on the phone while expressing. Experiment with a few bras and you’ll soon find one that works for you.
What makes it easier?
Just as with breastfeeding, if you aren’t rushed and if you’re feeling calm and relaxed the process will flow much easier.

What kind of breast pump?
Choosing the right breast pump  depends on how often you plan to use it. If you work full time and have to find time to express at the office, you'll need a fully automatic pump so you can pump both breasts quickly at the same time. But if you only need to express occasionally, an inexpensive manual pump will be fine. Some women prefer manual pumps as they feel (slightly) more natural.

Returning to work doesn’t mean you have to give up breastfeeding your baby. Expressing offers the opportunity to keep giving your baby the best nutrition that nature has to offer. What are your reasons for expressing?

To find more information about breastfeeding and donating breast milk, visit:

BabyGroup says…
This article has been checked by Heather Wood, Nursing sister, Midwife and Lactation Consultant. A member of the BabyGroup Medical Council.

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