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  • Naiomi Catron RNC, IBCLC

Pumping 101

Updated: May 13, 2020

Whether you need to increase your milk supply right after birth or you’re going back to work after weeks or months at home, chances are you may need to use a breast pump at some point. Seems easy, right? You just put it together, turn it on and go. While it can be that simple for some women, there are almost always questions that crop up. We’ve got the answers to some of the most common ones.

Photo by Isabella Mendes

When should I start pumping?

That depends. If your milk is slow coming in or you are separated from your baby, you may need to begin at birth. If you need to increase your supply or relieve some engorgement, you may need to start in the early days or weeks of breastfeeding. If you’re just wanting a ‘freezer stash’ for back to work but breastfeeding is overall going well, you can probably wait until a few weeks before the end of your maternity leave. Depending on how long your leave is, this could be in the early weeks or not until months after your baby is born.

Do I have the right pump?

If you and your baby are separated after birth or you have persistent low milk supply issues, you may need a hospital-grade double electric pump. If you’re returning to full-time employment, an electric pump is most efficient. If you only need to pump for occasional outings, a hand pump may be all you need. Or you can learn manual expression techniques and never need a pump at all.

Am I setting it up right?

Always follow the manufacturers’ instructions for pump sterilization, set-up and cleaning. If your pump doesn’t seem to be functioning well, take it all apart and make sure everything is attached correctly, especially and valves or membranes necessary for the vacuum to work. And remember, parts will probably wear out over time - check them every now and then to be sure yours are in working order.

What if it hurts?

Your pump doesn’t need to be at the highest setting to be effective. Play around with the different settings to find what is most comfortable for you. Sometimes the standard flange that comes with the pump is too big or too small for your individual anatomy. The best thing to do is measure your nipple and read the specifications for your pump manufacturer. The see if they sell different sizes. There are also third party manufacturers who make flanges for the most common electric pumps, and these tend to come in different materials and sizes.

Help - I’m hardly getting any milk!

Keep in mind that the amount you can pump is not related to how much your baby is getting when feeding at the breast - it’s instead a reflection of how well you let-down to a machine. Researchers at Stanford University have found that breast massage seems to really help moms get more milk when they are pumping. You can massage your breast before turning the pump on and during the pumping session. In one study, moms who use this ‘hands-on’ technique got 48 percent more milk.

The amount I can pump is slowly decreasing - what can I do?

Many moms who are regularly pumping notice a slump in production after a few months. Check all of your pump parts and replace any that are worn. Try a different pump or manual expression. Change your pumping schedule - adding additional sessions, if necessary. If none of these seem to work, contact a lactation consultant for assistance.

What do I do with the milk once it’s pumped?

Freshly expressed breastmilk can stay at room temperature for 4-6 hours, in a cooler with ice packs 24 hours, in the refrigerator for 4-8 days, in a freezer that’s part of your refrigerator for 3-4 months, or in a deep freeze for 6 months or more. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has a handy document you can print and keep in your kitchen for easy reference and you can find information from the American Academy of Pediatrics here.

Is it possible to exclusively pump?

Some moms never put their baby to breast but instead choose to pump and provide expressed breastmilk by bottle. While this may seem convenient, it is typically a lot of work to bring in and maintain a good milk supply. There’s no standard number of times per day or minutes per session to pump in order to do this since every woman’s milk making and storage capacity are different. But as a general rule, you would begin by pumping 8-12 times per day (just as a baby would be nursing), then make adjustments depending on your own supply. One of the best resources about exclusive pumping is Stephanie Casemore’s book, Exclusively Pumping Breast Milk.

How can I make pumping at work easier

Going back to work with a breastfeeding baby at home can seem daunting, but many women successfully combine the two. Discuss it with your employer before your return to work so you’re both on the same page about your needs. This also gives you a chance to find a good place to pump. Get the best pump you can afford, and have extra parts on hand. Invest in a hands-free pumping bra. Consider starting back part time, if you can. Be flexible - change your routine if your plans aren’t going smoothly. Sometimes it’s hard to let go of what’s going on in your workday enough to relax and let down to the pump - consider looking through pictures of your baby, listening to a recording of your baby cooing or crying, or even bringing along a blanket that was wrapped around your little one so you can smell that unique baby smell.

How often should I pump during my workday?

Since milk removal is the key to milk supply, you need to keep removing milk even when apart from your baby. Ideally, you would pump during your workday as often as your baby would normally be eating if you were together. But this isn’t always possible. Pump as often as you can, and if you need more milk for the next workday, add pumping sessions in the morning or evening.

Most importantly, know that you are doing a wonderful thing by providing your baby with breastmilk. Be kind to yourself and try to enjoy your life with your baby. Have fun like the hot, dancing mamma in the picture above. You got this! Get it #MilkDivaMom! #Breastfeeding #breastmilk #exclusivelypumping #EBP #Breastmilk #Breastpump #momlife

If you have more specific questions and would like expert advice from an IBCLC for your individual breastfeeding questions, check us out!

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