Ultimate Guide To Pumping Breast Milk

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Juggling a new baby’s needs is a tough job. If you’re nursing, you’re always on call. Unless you plan to have your little one with you every moment of every day, you’re probably going to need to be pumping breast milk.

There are a lot of reasons you may look to pumping as a solution to your baby’s needs. Whether you need to leave a meal for your little one or you’re trying to increase your supply, pumping breast milk could be your solution.

When To Start Pumping

If you’ve just had a baby, you may be wondering if it’s time to start pumping breast milk. Be aware that labor, delivery, subsequent nursing and skin to skin contact help trigger your milk to come in. It will be several weeks before your milk supply is truly in and stable, even if you’re regularly producing significant quantities.

Your baby initially has a very small stomach. During this period, you’ll be producing colostrum, and not “milk,” as you might imagine. This colostrum is extremely nutrient-rich and a little goes a long way.

Your baby will want to latch and nurse frequently. This is okay as long as your baby isn’t screaming or crying in pain or frustration while at the breast.

If you’re pumping breast milk during these crucial early weeks, you may encourage an oversupply. This can lead to a host of problems later on, including discomfort and mastitis. For these reasons, it’s really best to wait three or four weeks before introducing the breast pump

Waiting those few weeks will also allow your body to get used to nursing and milk production. This can be a lifesaver if you’re suffering from sore or tender nipples.

How To Pump

Wondering how a breast pump works? There are many different kinds of breast pumps, but they all rely on good suction to help replicate a baby nursing at the breast. 

A manual pump can be great to have on hand for emergencies—it can fit in your diaper bag or purse. It’s a simple piece that requires no electricity and no charged battery. Simply place the breast shield over the nipple and press the pump mechanism. This will create the needed suction and bring milk into the attached bottle or storage container.

A manual pump certainly has its purpose. When people talk about pumping breast milk, though, they are usually referring to a battery-powered or electricity-dependent pump.

While the concept of pumping breast milk is quite straightforward, the actual breast pumps can be quite complicated to navigate. They usually come with many different components—all of which are needed to operate the pump. 

If your pump is battery operated, you must make sure your battery has a good charge. Without the necessary charge, the created suction will not be enough to stimulate milk production and collection. Obviously, an electric pump will require access to an outlet.

These pumps generally have the following components:

  • The actual pump
  • Collection bottles
  • Connectors
  • Valves and membranes
  • Breast shields
  • Tubing

To assemble your pump components, attach the tubing to the pump. The membrane and valve are responsible for helping to create suction. It fits into the connectors, which then attach to the breast shields.

The other end of the tubing attaches to this finished unit at the back of the connector piece. Now the circuit is complete and you can place over your nipple and the fullest part of the breast.

Different models and manufacturers may vary slightly in appearance, but the general structure will be the same. You must make sure all of these pieces (except the pump itself) are sterilized on a regular basis. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for how to do this.

Your pump will likely operate at a “let down” pace and rhythm to help initiate let down. After this, it will pick up a regular nursing rhythm and begin to express milk. You can usually determine the strength and intensity of the pumping session.

After a pumping session, you will want to store your expressed milk and clean your equipment so it’s ready for your next session.


Best Times To Pump

If you’re looking for a great time to sneak in a productive pumping session, first thing in the morning is usually fruitful. It’s likely, even if you’ve nursed during the night, it wasn’t a frenzied feeding session. This means you’ve had a good long while to produce milk.

Other times you’ll want to pump include whenever your baby would usually nurse but has missed a feeding session. You can also choose to pump for a few minutes before each feeding or in between scheduled feedings.

Longer pumping times are not always better. A 10–15-minute pumping session is usually plenty.

How Often To Pump

How often you should be pumping breast milk will depend on several different factors:

  • How old your baby is
  • Whether you need breast milk for several meals or just an occasional meal
  • If you feel you are producing too much milk
  • If you are trying to increase your supply

Your baby’s age will influence how much milk you need to produce and collect. A younger baby consuming only breast milk will require more ounces of milk than a toddler who’s also consuming solids.

Your younger baby will also nurse more frequently, while an older baby can go longer periods of time without nursing—and you can go longer periods of time without pumping breast milk.

If you are working outside of the home, you will want to make sure you’re able to pump every time you would be feeding your little one. Essentially, you’ll be collecting the milk your child needs to consume during that time frame. Then you’ll be able to give that to your child the next time you’re at work.

Depending on your baby’s growth patterns and how often they’re nursing, you may occasionally create more milk than you need. In these instances, you can pump as needed to alleviate discomfort.

If you’re looking to temper your supply a little, don’t pump until you’re no longer producing milk. Instead, only pump to alleviate fullness, discomfort, and to help prevent mastitis.

If you are trying to increase your milk supply, you can try pumping breast milk between feeds and after your baby has finished eating.

baby bottle

How To Store Expressed Breast Milk

Pumping breast milk is only half of the experience. Once you’ve pumped it, you’re going to need to know how to safely store it. How you choose to store your milk will be influenced by how frequently you’ll need to feed your baby expressed milk.

How Long Can Milk Stay At Room Temperature?

How long your milk can stay safely at room temperature will depend on whether it’s been freshly pumped or not.

If your milk has been freshly pumped, it can stay at room temperature for 5–8 hours. If your milk has been previously refrigerated, it can only stay at room temperature for 4 hours.

Breast milk that has previously been frozen should not be thawed at room temperature and it should not be stored at room temperature for any period of time. Instead, thaw frozen milk and serve immediately – see below for more information.

How Long Will Milk Last In The Refrigerator?

Freshly expressed milk can be kept in the refrigerator for up to five days. If you know you won’t use your expressed milk in that time frame, it’s best to transfer stored milk to the freezer by the third day.

How Long Will Milk Last In The Freezer?

If you need to store your breast milk for an extended period of time, the freezer will be your best option. Freshly expressed milk stored properly in the freezer can be safely kept for up to one year.

How To Thaw Frozen Milk

It’s important not to thaw your milk at room temperature. That means you can’t just pull out what you need and pop it on the counter before meal time.

Instead, you’ll need to put the frozen milk in the refrigerator to defrost the night before it’s needed. This will allow your breast milk to more gradually reach the desired temperature. This is best for preserving antibodies and avoiding bacteria growth.

If you need to warm the milk further after thawing, you shouldn’t use the microwave or put it in a pot of boiling water. Instead, place your bottle of cool milk in a larger container of warm water or run it under warm water.

What Kind Of Container Should Be Used For Storing Breast Milk?

Whether you’re storing your breast milk in the refrigerator or in the freezer, you’ll want to use an appropriate container. Using the wrong kind of container can lead to spoiled, spilled, or otherwise wasted milk.

You may choose to store your milk in plastic or in glass containers. If choosing a plastic container, make sure it’s BPA-free and suitable for storing food.

You can also store milk in plastic bags specifically made for breast milk storage. These can be found near pumping accessories in the store. They are an inexpensive solution, but may be prone to leaks.

Should you decide to store your milk in bags, the best practice is to keep your bags inside a sealed container. This will help contain any leaks that may happen.

Especially if you are storing your milk in the freezer, you’ll need to account for the expansion that takes place when liquid freezes. Always leave enough room for this to happen without compromising the seal or seams.

Prior to storing, you should carefully label your milk with its expressed date as well as its storing date. This will help you keep track of which milk should be utilized first and when milk should be thrown away.

How To Increase Milk Supply

There may be a time where you’re looking to increase your milk supply. This could happen after a period away from your child, where you’re exclusively pumping.

While a pump is a great tool, it’s also less efficient than a child. It’s possible to experience a drop in production for other reasons as well, including the use of medications or diet changes.

To increase your milk supply, first, start with the basics:

  • Get plenty of sleep: Milk production is taxing for your body. For best production rates, you’ll want to schedule in plenty of time for sleep.
woman sleeping with pug on bed
  • Up your fluid intake: Your milk supply relies heavily on being well hydrated. Drink plenty of water to encourage milk production. You should aim to drink an extra 32 ounces of water a day while nursing.
  • Consider using supplements: There are many supplements linked with improving milk production. Before introducing a supplement to your health routine, however, be sure to consult your healthcare provider.
  • Continue taking your prenatal vitamins: It’s easy to drop your vitamin regimen after your baby has arrived. However, it’s actually important that you continue to take a prenatal (or specialized postnatal) vitamin the entire time your nursing. Your baby’s growing body has many demands and you could be shortchanging your own body of important nutrients.
  • Take a close look at your diet: It’s possible you aren’t nourishing your body for optimal milk production. Even if you aren’t increasing your milk quantity, you can easily increase your milk quality by altering your diet. Consider introducing complex carbs and other lactation-friendly foods.

Once you’ve taken these early steps, there are some additional things you can do to increase your milk supply:

  • Pump prior to nursing: This will collect the early, easy to collect milk and let your more efficient nurser take in the rest.
  • Pump after nursing: Once your baby has finished nursing, continue to pump. Even if you don’t collect much (or anything) this will signal your body to produce more milk.
  • Pump in between feedings: This is especially important if your child is skipping a meal or sleeping late. Not expressing milk when you’re breasts are full tells the body that it is producing too much milk and can lead to a drop in production. 

Find you’re producing too much milk? You can cut back on your supply by pumping less frequently and only just enough to relieve discomfort. This will signal the body that it’s producing too much milk and will encourage less production.

How Much Milk Should You Be Getting?

How much milk you need will depend on the age of your child and their dietary needs. In general, you should expect to produce between 25 and 35 ounces of milk during a single 24-hour period.

Pumping Breast Milk Doesn’t Have To Be A Chore

Pumping breast milk can be a great way to give your baby the benefits that go along with nursing—even when you can’t be there to nurse.

Knowing what goes into pumping breast milk can make the process a little less overwhelming. After all, you have enough on your plate with a young child.

Cristin is a co-founder of Smart Parent Advice, and the loving mother of two wonderful children. In her free time, she can often be found in a yoga studio or catching up on her favorite shows.