Expressing or pumping your breastmilk is one way of connecting to your baby. It provides him with your precious milk, along with all the antibodies and nutrition that is so important for his growth and development. But more than that, it also keeps your milk supply up, so you can breastfeed and remain close when you are together. However, pumping or expressing breastmilk is not a natural process; we are not meant to be hooked up to a machine! It takes time and a bit of learning curve to get the hang of it and be successful. Read on to learn how to start pumping, tips for effective pumping, and how to build up a stockpile.
Getting Started with Pumping
One of the first questions military mothers ask is when they should start pumping while on convalescent leave. The first couple of weeks are the most important time for calibrating the breasts to the amount of milk they need to make for the long-haul. With 12 weeks of convalescent leave, you’ll probably want to begin pumping around 4 weeks after birth. This will tell your breasts to make more milk than needed and will help to build up a superabundant milk supply. It will also help you begin to stockpile breastmilk for your return to work. Pump once or twice a day, just enough to practice and get the hang of it, at the beginning.
Most mothers find that lightly massaging the breasts helps stimulate the let-down reflex. You may also want to put a warm cloth or heating pad against your breasts as well. Looking at your baby while you pump or smelling an article of his clothing can also be helpful. Once pumping becomes routine, your breasts will become used to the pump, your let-down will occur more easily, and you won’t need to do all this preparation.
Center your nipple in the breast flange (some mothers find that lubricating the flange with water or olive oil helps to create a stronger seal and reduces friction), and start the pump. When using an automatic pump, turn it to its lowest setting and gradually increase the speed. With a manual pump, start with a gentle, slow rhythm. If pumping is painful at anytime, check that your nipple is positioned correctly and your flanges are the correct size (see below). You may also need to adjust the suction, as it might be too strong. Remember, pumping should not be painful. If it hurts, something is wrong.
The flanges (or shields) are the part of the collection kit that fit over your nipple. All women’s nipples are different, but most pumps are packaged with a standard, one-size-fits-all sized flange. Your flanges need to fit YOU properly for efficient and comfortable pumping. When pumping you should see extra space around your nipples and they should move in and out of the “tunnel” without rubbing the sides. If pumping is painful or uncomfortable, your nipple fills the tunnel, seems to be stuck, or you see a white ring at the base of the nipple, your flanges are too small. Flanges that cause the breast tissue to be pulled into the tunnel or that do not form an airtight seal are too large. Flanges that are the wrong size can cause tenderness and eventually a lowered milk supply. See an IBCLC for help in properly fitting yourself for flanges.
Pumping is a skill that must be learned, and it takes time to master this skill. Do NOT be alarmed if you get only drops or even nothing at all the first few times. The point of pumping is to tell your breasts to make more milk. But it will take time. Pumping is as much a physical process as it is a psychological process, so try not to become discouraged. Your body is used to letting-down to a warm, cuddly baby and must get used to letting-down to a cold, hard plastic pump instead.
Effectiveness at pumping improves with practice! Practice in the morning when your supply is at it’s highest. You can pump after your baby has breastfed, or you can set your pump up to single-pump, and pump one side while your baby nurses on the other side. This is a great way to have a quick and strong let-down and boost your milk-making hormone levels. Continue pumping a few times a day while on convalescent leave. The milk that you pump can be saved for your stockpile when you return to duty (see below: Building a Stockpile).
While it is important to calibrate your breasts to make more milk than needed in the first weeks, don’t pump so much that you end up with plugged ducts or mastitis when you return to work and you can’t pump as often. It is vitally important that you breastfeed your baby during the twelve weeks of your convalescent leave as it will fly by. Remember, your baby is your best pump, expressing milk is a bonus right now.
Tips for Expressing/Pumping Milk
A low supply of breastmilk when pumping can be caused by numerous factors, but is most often from a lack of breastfeeding while on convalescent leave or time to pump during the work day. If you are consistent about following these recommendations, you should see an improvement within a few days. While it might take a few days to weeks to bring your pumping output back up, you should see a steady, gradual increase in the amounts pumped. It may seem like a lot of work now, but you will be glad you put the time and effort into it, and so will your baby! These tips are also available as a PDF handout on the Resources Page.
These tips work for most mothers, use only what is helpful via trial and error:
- 8-10 breastfeeding / pumping sessions 24 hours for 15-20 min
- Every 3-4 hours max while at work – full breasts signal your body to slow/stop milk production
- Frequency is more important than duration
- Breastfeed or pump at least 1x at night
- Prolactin peaks during the nighttime hours (regardless of your work shift)
- Invest in a hands-free bra
- Make one by cutting slits in a sports bra
- Power Pumping
- Pump for the length of each commercial break during your favorite show
- 5 min sessions sprinkled throughout the day
- Establish a routine
- Pump in the same place and at the same time everyday
- Stimulate a Let-Down
- Relax shoulders
- Deep breathing
- Apply warmth to breasts (hot packs)
- Massage breasts before pumping
- Visualize ‘rivers of milk’
- Smell a piece of your baby’s clothing or blanket
- Listen to recording of your baby’s sounds (crying, laughing, babbling)
- Watch a video of your baby breastfeeding (taken over your shoulder)
- Pump With A Buddy
- Pumping with a friend or co-worker increases oxytocin, resulting in higher milk yield during your pumping session
- Hands-On Pumping (HOP)
- Tandem pump while breastfeeding
- Baby on one breast, pump the other breast
- Adjust settings on pump
- Hit the let-down button or change the suction and frequency settings
- Set suction to max comfort level for you
- Alternate flange sizes
- Try soft flanges that ‘massage’ the breast
- Try Pumpin’ Pals Super Shields (www.pumpinpals.com)
- Do NOT watch the collection bottles
- Cover the pump with a blanket
Building a Stockpile
You will be separated from your baby on a regular basis, so it is a good idea to build up a supply for later use. A “stockpile” means to keep a large amount of frozen expressed milk in the freezer for later use. You can start to stockpile a reserve supply of frozen milk when you start practicing with the pump. Since you will be pumping after several feedings each day in order to calibrate the breasts to make more milk than needed, you will begin collecting a fair amount of milk. By creating an “oversupply” of milk, you will compensate for the dip in production upon your return to work, and your frozen stockpile can be a wonderful back-up for unexpected growth spurts, missed pumping sessions, or separations due to FTX/TDY or deployments.
Decide how much milk to stockpile. Some mothers choose to keep a small reserve of about three days’ worth of milk for “just in case” reasons, others know they will be sent away on a TDY assignment, training, or deployment, and choose to stockpile larger amounts. Other women who start pumping and collecting their milk early on find that they can manage to stockpile enough to continue giving their babies frozen milk long after they have stopped pumping or even breastfeeding. But don’t become obsessive about how much milk you can or cannot stockpile.
A few women let down easily to the pump or have an abundant supply, and find stockpiling easy. Other women find it next to impossible to squeeze out even an extra ounce of milk for the freezer. It is important to remember that your extra store of frozen milk is for emergencies only. Don’t rely on your stockpile once you return to work. If you regularly use your stored milk, you’ll quickly deplete your stockpile, and every bottle that you give in place of breastfeeding or pumping reduces your milk supply. For information on proper collection and storage of breastmilk head on over to the BreastMilk Collection and Storage Guidelines page.