How to Use a Breast Pump

Maintain milk supply by using a manual or powered breast pump

Breast pump with bottles

Verywell / Bailey Mariner

Whether a breastfeeding parent plans to return to work away from home or simply needs a break, a breast pump is a helpful option. It is an easy, efficient way to maintain milk supply and provide breast milk when a parent can't be with their baby.

Many parents worry about using a breast pump: Will it be hard to use? What about efficiency, comfort and affordability? How do you clean it? However, with the right plan, pumping can be an empowering experience. A lactation consultant or breastfeeding group is a great resource for parents who use a breast pump.

Types of Breast Pumps

There are many different types of pumps: manual, single or double electric, hospital-grade, and even hands-free. Via the Affordable Care Act, your health insurance must cover a free electric breast pump. Even if you plan to pump only occasionally, take advantage of this benefit.

If you work outside the home, you will probably need a double electric pump. If you have a premature or ill baby in the NICU, or an older baby that is hospitalized and not able to nurse, may need a hospital-grade pump to simulate feeds the baby isn't getting and to stimulate milk production and supply.

When to Use a Breast Pump

The best time to pump depends on the situation. If you are pumping for a single relief bottle, where someone else will be feeding the baby at a later time, you can generally pump first thing in the morning. Milk supply peaks between 1 a.m. and 5 a.m., but this does not mean you have to wake up to pump during that time.

The best time to pump is after your baby's first morning feed. So if your baby nurses at 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., you may wish to pump after that 6 a.m. feeding session.

There is plenty of milk to pump after the first morning feed and there will be plenty left for the next feeding. Even if your breasts don't feel very full, go ahead and pump; you should get a useful amount.

Pumping If You Work Away From Home

If you are not with your baby during the work day and want to continue breastfeeding, you'll need to pump more frequently than just in the mornings. To maintain a good milk supply, you will need to pump frequently, generally at the times when the baby normally has a feeding. So you might feed the baby at 6 a.m., pump at 9 a.m., noon, and 3 p.m., and then feed the baby in the evenings and during the night as needed.

Start building a bank of milk in the freezer about a month before returning to work.

To build a bank, pump daily, after the first breastfeed of the day, and store that milk. This way, there is less stress when you first return to work and begin pumping more frequently.

How to Prepare a Breast Pump

Before you start pumping for the first time, read the manual that came with your pump. Wash the removable parts (such as the flanges and collection bottles) with warm, soapy water.

Each time you pump, start by gathering supplies, like freezer bags and a glass or bottle of water (pumping can make you thirsty). Plug in the pump if it's an electric model. Then wash your hands, and you're ready to begin.

How to Use a Breast Pump

Each pump is a little bit different, but the instruction manual should help. Many manufacturers post how-to videos online. You can also get help from a lactation consultant if you have any questions.

How to Use a Manual Breast Pump

You can only pump one breast at a time with a manual pump, but they are nice to have to quickly relieve engorgement or as a backup if your electric pump fails for some reason.

To use, position the flange (the cone-like piece that goes onto the breast) so that the nipple is centered. Squeeze the lever or bulb so that the flange seals to the breast, creating pressure that draws milk out of the nipple.

Pump for 10 to 20 minutes, until milk stops flowing—or until your hand gets tired! You can then switch to the other breast.

How to Use an Electric Breast Pump

If you are using a double electric pump, this plan should help maintain milk supply.

  • Center the nipples in the flanges. Lean forward slightly and turn the pump on.
  • Keep the pump at slow speed and low suction. This simulates how a baby sucks. It can be jarring to the body to pump at more intense settings.
  • Pump for 7 minutes. You may see nothing coming out at first and this is normal. A few minutes into the pumping, you will have a "let-down," where the milk starts to flow.
  • Stop the pump for 1 minute and massage the breast, coming down from the armpit to the nipple, all around. This gives the breast a break and allows it to reset, in a sense.
  • Pump for 7 more minutes and then store the milk.

It is important to pump for 15 minutes, even if the milk stops flowing. The pumping stimulates the breasts to maintain milk supply. Some parents (not all) notice that their supply decreases over time if they only pump a few minutes until the flow stops.

How to Clean a Breast Pump

Consult the instruction manual for your pump. In most cases, you don't need to sterilize any removable pump parts—just wash them in warm, soapy water.

But sanitizing wipes and sterilizing bags can be a convenient option, especially if you don't have easy access to a sink. To use the bags, place removable parts (like flanges) into the bag and steam in the microwave.

If your pump has a rechargeable battery, recharge between sessions so it's always ready to go.

A Word From Verywell

A good breast pump can be a lifesaver, whether you use it daily or just once in awhile. Practice with your pump at home before you need to use it on the road or at work. This will give you time to make adjustments and get comfortable with the pump. Plus, it'll help you build a stash of frozen milk for future use.

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