A Comprehensive Guide to Breast Pumping

woman using an electric breast pump

Joey333 / iStockphoto

Pumping breast milk is not a new trend or phenomenon. In fact, women have been expressing breast milk to feed their babies since the 1500s and they have been using breast pumps to assist them for almost two centuries.

Until recently, though, some breast pumps on the market were ineffective, making them frustrating to use and often resulting in early weaning. But, advances in pump design and effectiveness have created options for women to express milk from both breasts in as little as 15 minutes using a double pump, which allows them to continue expressing milk for months.

If you're considering pumping breast milk either because you're returning to work or because you want or need to offer your baby a bottle, you may find the entire idea overwhelming. You may even wonder if pumping will hurt or if you will even be able to do it. But, don't be discouraged.

Most healthcare professionals indicate that with the help of a lactation consultant, the process of pumping breast milk is a simple one to master. Here's everything you need to know about pumping breast milk for your baby.

A Closer Look at Breast Pumping

Studies show that pumping breast milk has become popular in the United States. In fact, research shows that more than 85 percent of infants fed breast milk are given expressed milk from a bottle from time to time. The reasons for this vary dramatically.

For instance, some people express milk because their baby is struggling to latch. They may also choose to express milk to allow their partner or another caretaker to participate in feeding. People also pump to store an emergency supply of milk, relieve engorgement, or increase their milk supply. Additionally, parents of preemies are often encouraged to express milk while their babies are too small or immature to feed at the breast.

In the past, expressing breast milk was considered a way to complement feeding at the breast and was usually only practiced out of necessity because the mother was temporarily unavailable or the infant was unable to feed at the breast.

But, today, some women are choosing to pump exclusively without ever feeding their baby at the breast. In fact, according to the U.S. Infant Feeding Practices Study II, 5.6 percent of women feeding their babies breast milk do so by exclusively pumping. Medical issues, breast surgeries, or extensive work commitments often top the list of reasons why women might exclusively pump.

Yet, many women still do not realize that exclusively pumping breast milk is an option. Research shows that 71 percent of women have never heard of exclusive pumping until after giving birth. This lack of information may lead women to give up on providing breast milk for their babies.

When women are educated about the option of exclusive pumping, they feel more confident about the fact that they can still give their babies breast milk despite the challenges they are facing. They also report feeling less frustrated, insecure, depressed, rejected, embarrassed, burdened, guilty, or disappointed.

Benefits of Pumping

Whether you're pumping exclusively, pumping to maintain your milk supply for a baby in the NICU, or pumping because you have to return to work, there are a number of benefits to expressing breast milk. Aside from allowing you to give your baby human-made milk—which is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP)—pumping has some other benefits, as well. Here are some advantages of pumping breast milk.

  • Allows others to participate. When you are able to pump breast milk, this means you can build up a supply in the fridge or freezer that allows your partner or other caretakers to participate in feeding your baby.
  • Gives you a break. If you are pumping and storing your breast milk, this means that your partner or another caretaker can assist with nighttime feedings by giving the baby expressed milk. It also frees you up to do other things while another caretaker feeds the baby.
  • Provides the opportunity for supplemental feeding. Sometimes babies have a poor latch or other feeding difficulties, which make it hard for them to feed at the breast. Rather than giving up on breastfeeding altogether, expressing breast milk allows you to maintain your milk supply and ensure your baby is eating enough.

"Pumping also provides 'liquid gold' for the baby," says Kadi Addy, RN, MSN, APRN, CLC. Addy is a nurse practitioner and lactation consultant with Muskingum Valley Health Centers in Ohio. "Sometimes pumping also can be less time consuming and allows your partner to help feed the baby."

When to Start Pumping

If your baby is healthy, gaining weight well, and there is no anticipated separation between you and your little one coming up, most lactation consultants recommend waiting until your baby is about 4 to 6 weeks old before you start a pumping schedule.

However, if your baby was premature, is struggling with jaundice, is having trouble latching on, or is experiencing other issues, you may want to talk to your healthcare provider or a lactation consultant about starting pumping as soon as possible. Also, some people choose to pump because they are having nipple pain or sensitivity feeding at the breast and pumping allows them to maintain their milk supply. In these situations, you also may want to start pumping as soon as you can.

If you and your baby are going to be separated for any reason or if you simply cannot feed at the breast, you need to pump and store your milk until the two of you are reunited.

"If you are planning to return to work, you may want to start pumping 2 to 3 weeks before you plan to return so that you become comfortable with how your pump works and can build a stash of expressed milk in your freezer," says Lexie Hess, a certified lactation counselor in Wheeling, West Virginia.

If your goal is to pump exclusively instead of breastfeeding, schedule some time to speak with a lactation consultant so that you can develop a plan on how to maintain and build your breast milk from the beginning, notes Hess.

A lactation consultant also can advise you on whether you need an electric pump or a hospital-grade pump. Most people who are pumping because they are working full-time or because they want to pump exclusively will want an electric pump or a hospital-grade pump. These pumps are more efficient, which means you can pump both breasts at the same time and get the most milk.

How to Establish a Pumping Schedule

Although the best time to pump really depends on your and your baby's schedule, Hess says that pumping at night or first thing in the morning is when you will see the most milk.

"A woman's prolactin levels are higher overnight and in the early morning, so your milk production will be higher then," Hess says. "If you want to focus on storing milk, put your baby to the breast in the morning and then pump both breasts for 10 to 15 minutes afterward. Some moms pump immediately after nursing and others wait and pump one hour after they have fed their baby."

If you are unable to breastfeed your baby and want to ensure they still get breast milk, you should plan to pump as frequently as your baby would be feeding, which is typically every two to three hours, says Addy. Make sure to pump until the milk stops flowing, which is usually about 15 to 20 minutes.

If you're with your baby and combining both nursing and pumping, try not to overextend yourself just to build a stash of milk. Pumping between every feeding session and at night will exhaust you and may lead to an overabundant milk supply. You can always talk to a healthcare provider or lactation consultant to discuss your feeding goals and develop a schedule that works for you and your little one.

Remember, your body makes breast milk based on supply and demand, says Addy. Every time you nurse or pump, you are signaling to your body to produce more milk. It's also important to remember that the breast is never truly empty, she adds. If you recently pumped and your baby wants to nurse, there will still be milk there for your baby to eat. They just may have to nurse longer to get a full feed.

How to Pump

If you are planning to pump on a consistent basis or even exclusively, you may want to create a pumping station for yourself both at home and at work (if you're returning to work). This station should include all the pump supplies you need like your pump, clean bottles, and flanges for collecting the milk, bottled water in case you're thirsty, and a cover or scarf. You also may want to have a photo or recording of your baby nearby. Just looking at or listening to your baby helps stimulate the letdown reflex and can make pumping easier.

At home, some parents put these supplies in a rolling cart. For parents who are taking their supplies with them to work or another location, you will want to be sure your bag is packed with everything you need. You also may want to consider including a wet/dry bag or a few Ziploc bags for storing your used pump parts until you get home.

Once you are ready to start pumping, follow these steps in order to have a successful pumping experience.

  • Wash and dry your hands thoroughly before touching your pump or your breasts.
  • Get relaxed by finding a comfortable spot and forgetting about any stresses or worries. It can help to have a picture of your baby, a recording of your baby, or a recording of relaxing music or lullabies.
  • Encourage the letdown process by massaging your breast or using a warm compress.
  • Position the flanges so that the nipple is in the center and creates a good seal.
  • Resist the urge to use the highest setting on your pump, as this could be painful. Pumping breast milk should not hurt.
  • Sit back and relax. Allow the pump to do what it was designed to do.
  • Store your breast milk safely and securely. If you are pumping someplace other than your home, it helps to have an insulated cooler with some freezer packs to keep your expressed milk cool.

How to Clean a Pump

Cleaning your pump and supplies after each use is essential to ensure that everything stays sanitary and germ-free. Most breast pump parts can be washed with soap and water just like you would wash your dishes, Hess says. But, she says you should avoid submerging the tubing in water because it can cause mold. Instead, spot-clean the tubing as needed.

You also can put your pump parts in the top rack of the dishwasher assuming they are dishwasher safe. But, if you are washing the parts by hand, try not to put them in the kitchen or bathroom sink to wash them. Instead, wash each piece by hand or use a clean bowl to wash the parts in and let them air dry on the counter. You should not put them away until they are completely dry.

How to Store Pumped Milk

Once you have pumped your breast milk, you want to be sure you are storing it correctly. After all, you don't want to have to throw out milk over concerns that it might have gone bad.

How long breast milk lasts:

  • Room temperature: Breast milk is good for up to 4 hours.
  • Insulated cooler with an ice pack: Breast milk is good up to 24 hours.
  • Back of the refrigerator: Freshly pumped breast milk will last 4 to 6 days; thawed breast milk lasts up to 24 hours.
  • Freezer: Breast milk lasts up to 6 months
  • Deep freezer: Breast milk lasts up to a year.

Before storing your breast milk, you should label it with the date and time it was expressed. You also should never re-freeze thawed breast milk or put breast milk in the microwave to warm it up, Hess says.

Pumping and Other Feeding Options

A lot of parents struggle with knowing what is best for their baby. They wonder if they should exclusively breastfeed, exclusively pump, or even do a combination of both. Some parents even choose to supplement their baby's feedings with formula.

Whatever route you take, just be sure to talk to your baby's pediatrician so that you can ensure they are getting their nutritional needs met.

Dr. Danielle Roberts

Regardless of what kind of milk your infant is drinking, whether at the breast, expressed breast milk, or formula, fed is best.

— Dr. Danielle Roberts

In fact, according to Danielle Roberts, MD, a pediatrician with Muskingum Valley Health Centers in Ohio, it's important to remember that every child is different and to stay up with your child's well visits. Your pediatrician can ensure your baby is gaining weight and growing appropriately.

"Regardless of what kind of milk your infant is drinking, whether at the breast, expressed breast milk, or formula, fed is best," she says.

Keep in mind, too, that your pediatrician will likely start your infant on vitamin D supplements at birth and an iron supplement at six months if you are breastfeeding or pumping exclusively, Dr. Roberts says. Meanwhile, formula-fed infants may need to take a multivitamin supplement with vitamin D until they are consuming about 30 ounces of formula a day, she says. So, if you are using a combination of feeding options, talk to your doctor about what supplements your baby might need.

How to Wean From Pumping

Whether you are pumping exclusively or pumping and supplementing with nursing or even formula, you probably have a date in mind as to when you would like to begin weaning yourself from pumping. Most people set a goal to pump for the first year of their baby's life especially because the AAP recommends that babies be breastfed exclusively for the first six months of their life with a continuation of breastfeeding for one year or longer as long as it's mutually desired.

However, some people decide to pump longer and some decide to start weaning sooner and rely on formula or nursing to meet their baby's needs. Overall, you should discuss your goals with your child's pediatrician to ensure that whatever route you take that your baby is getting their nutritional needs met.

Once you decide to begin weaning your body from pumping, though, you will need to approach it slowly. Talk to your doctor or lactation consultant about how to effectively wean without causing issues for you or your baby.

"You don't want to quit pumping cold turkey," explains Hess. "This can lead to problems such as plugged ducts, engorgement, and even mastitis."

Addressing Pain and Other Discomforts

Pumping should never be painful, though slight discomfort (like a pulling feeling) is typical. So, if you are experiencing pain when you pump, you may want to contact a lactation consultant. They can help you ensure your flanges fit correctly as well as advise you on how to use your pump properly. For instance, some people use settings that are too high, which can cause pain and discomfort, Hess says.

If you are experiencing some discomfort because your breasts are engorged, you may want to try a warm compress to help soften the breast and allow the milk to letdown. Meanwhile, if you suspect that you have a plugged duct or the beginnings of mastitis or a yeast infection, be sure you contact your doctor or a lactation consultant. They can evaluate you and ensure you get the treatment or medications that you need.

A Word From Verywell

Expressing breast milk is one of the best ways to ensure that your baby is getting breast milk on a consistent basis, even when circumstances prevent you from breastfeeding. If you are considering pumping or it has been recommended by your baby's doctor, make sure you schedule some time to talk with a lactation consultant.

They can answer all your questions and help you get started. They also are available to answer questions throughout the process. So, never delay reaching out to a lactation consultant in your area.

4 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.
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  2. Keim SA, Boone KM, Oza-Frank R, Geraghty SR. Pumping milk without ever feeding at the breast in the Moms2Moms StudyBreastfeed Med. 2017;12(7):422-429. doi:10.1089/bfm.2017.0025

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By Sherri Gordon
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert.