Avoid Sore Nipples and Trauma From Breast Pumping

Family with newborn talking with lactation specialist

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Using a breast pump, just like breastfeeding, should not be painful or traumatic. And most women don't consider either all that easy. Expressing your breast milk with a breast pump is something that you have to learn how to do properly, and that can take time.

Unfortunately, if you use your breast pump incorrectly in the interim, it can cause pain and breast or nipple trauma. Using the correct technique will not only prevent this, but it will also help you remove milk from your breasts more efficiently.

Whether you're just occasionally pumping a few extra ounces of breast milk or you're pumping several times a day, you can avoid pain and injury by understanding the most common missteps and learning how to avoid them. 

Keep Everything Clean

Always wash your hands before pumping and make sure your pumping equipment is clean; you want to keep germs or any contamination away as much as possible. Bacteria and fungus can cause sore, cracked nipples, thrush, or breast infections. 

Use a Pump Flange That Fits

The part of the breast pump that goes over your breast and nipple is called the flange, or breast shield. Many women just use the standard size flange that comes with the pump, not realizing that it's not a one-size-fits-all kind of product and that many breast pump brands offer the option to buy extra shields in different sizes.

If you use a pump flange that's too large, it will not be very effective. If you use one that's too small, your nipples will rub against the sides instead of being drawn into the inner funnel, which can cause sore nipples. Before you go ahead and use that standard size flange, be sure that it's the right one for you.

Position Your Breast Carefully

Once you have the correct size flange, be sure that you're placing your breast inside of it correctly. Your nipple should be perfectly centered in the middle of the flange. An incorrectly fitted breast shield can cause pain and trauma, sometimes including bruising, to the nipple and areola.

Don't Overdo the Suction and Speed

If you pump on high suction and at super speed, it doesn't mean you'll get more breast milk or finish pumping more quickly (and not all pumps offer the ability to change the speed of the cycle). Instead, start with the suction and the speed of the pump on low, if your pump allows, and then turn up the suction to the highest comfortable level for you.

Find a setting that's comfortable and mimics how your baby nurses, which will get your milk flowing. Even if your baby has a strong suck, it still does not compare to the strength of a pump on high suction. 

These high settings can not only be painful to your breasts, but they may actually cause you to remove less breast milk.

Don't Pump Excessively

Pump each breast for about 15 minutes. If you're still getting breast milk after that time, you can pump for a little longer (a maximum of 20 minutes). Continuing to pump for longer than the recommended maximum time can lead to sore nipples and breasts, as well as to overstimulation and oversupply.

Avoid Bicycle Horn Pumps

Bicycle horn (bulb-style) breast pumps are small, portable, hand-operated pumps with rubber bulbs at the end that provide the source of suction. Some women use them to relieve occasional breast engorgement, but they're not recommended.

Since it's difficult to control the suction of these pumps, they can cause damage to the breast tissue and put you at a greater risk for breast issues such as sore nipples or mastitis. The next best option aside from an electrical pump is a single-user manual breast pump.

Where to Find Help

If you continue to have breast pain, sore nipples, or bruising on your breasts while pumping, make an appointment with a lactation consultant. They can treat any breast or nipple trauma related to pumping and instruct you on the proper use of a breast pump, and provide tips on how to get the best results with a breast pump. 

Your pediatrician, obstetrician, or midwife should be able to refer you to a certified lactation consultant (ICBLC).

3 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How to keep your breast pump clean.

  2. Becker GE, Smith HA, Cooney F. Methods of milk expression for lactating women. Cochrane Pregnancy and Childbirth Group, edCochrane Database of Systematic Reviews. Published online September 29, 2016. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD006170.pub5

  3. Mass Breastfeeding coalition. About breast pumps.

Additional Reading

By Melissa Kotlen
Melissa Kotlen is an International Board-Certified Lactation Consultant and Registered Lactation Consultant.