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How to Express Breast Milk

How to Express Breast Milk

Expressing breast milk is the act of removing milk from your breast, either by hand or using a manual or electric pump.

When to start expressing milk

Mothers can start expressing their breast milk soon after birth. Whether you want to pump straight from the beginning or do it a few times a day, that choice is entirely up to you. You may, however, be wondering when the best time is to express breast milk. That’s when:

  • Your breasts feel uncomfortably full.
  • You will be spending some time away from your baby and would like someone else to give them your breastmilk, or are returning to work.
  • Your baby is not feeding well (for example if your baby was born with a cleft lip or palate).
  • Your baby was born early, and you need to stimulate your milk supply for when they are ready to suckle from the breast.

When to express milk for night feeds

Breastfeeding at night is extremely important for ensuring your baby gets all the nutrition they need to grow, as well as being vital in maintaining a good milk supply.

Newborns need to be fed every few hours throughout the day and night. This can be extremely exhausting for mums due to the ongoing sleep interruption which can lead to sleep deprivation.

Expressing breast milk and storing it in advance is a great way to manage this as your baby can be fed the expressed milk by your partner without waking you up (which is very unlikely).

However, keep in mind that this is recommended after 6 weeks when your baby has an established feeding routine.

How often to express milk

The best time to express breast milk is in the morning when your breasts are the fullest. But overall, the number of times you need to pump depends on how often your baby feeds during a 24 hour window. If you need to feed them 8-12 times a day, then you need to express milk at least 8 times a day to keep up with their demands.

So, pumping every 2-3 hours may be the best way to go. Since your breasts will naturally feel fuller when your baby wants to feed, it’s best to express breast milk while feeding your baby, so you can save it for the next round.

Low breast milk supply  

If you aren’t getting any breast milk when expressing, it’s because you may not be producing enough of it. This isn’t a cause of concern as your supply can vary and be affected by diet, stress levels, and many other factors – so adjusting those will also improve your breast milk supply.

If you see a constant blockage, it may be due to engorgement, blocked ducts, or mastitis. Read our blog to find out what this is and how you can solve this.

How to express milk from the breast

There are a few different ways to express your breast milk: by hand or through a manual or electric breast pump. If you’re unsure about the type of pumps that would be best for you, check out our Which Breast Pump Should I Choose? blog post.

How to hand express milk

Hand expressing is a good way to release milk from your breast and can be helpful to try before you start to use your breast pump. The trick to this technique is to press the milk ducts behind your nipple. If you squeeze just the nipple, you won’t get milk and it will more than likely hurt!

According to the NHS, you should follow these steps for hand expressing:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Cup your breast with one hand and with your other hand create a ‘C’ shape with your forefinger and thumb.
  • Squeeze gently, keeping your finger and thumb around your areola – avoid squeezing your actual nipple as this could make it sore.
  • Release the pressure and repeat without sliding your fingers over the skin.
  • You should see drops start to appear and then your milk flow. If drops don’t appear, try move your finger and thumb slightly while still avoiding the nipple.
  • Once the milk flow begins to slow, move your fingers to a different section of your breast and repeat the process.
  • Once it has completely slowed in one breast, switch to the other breast and keep changing breasts until your milk either drips very slowly or stops completely.

Once you’ve expressed your milk, read our guide on storing expressed breastmilk to ensure it stays fresh and safe for your baby.

You should establish your breastfeeding with the baby before you start expressing. If you have any questions or require assistance with breast massage and hand expressing, speak to your health professional.

How to pump breast milk

Many mothers use a pump to express breastmilk. You can choose between a manual or an electric pump; with both single and double electric pumps working well. You could also use a Breast milk Collector while feeding on the other side to catch any letdown milk and store it for a later feed.

Once you have your breast pump set up, it is best to be seated whilst expressing. It sometimes helps to have a picture of your baby with you as this can encourage the release of a special hormone that encourages your body to produce breast milk. It’s also important to keep a drink nearby (water for example) so that you can stay hydrated during your pumping session.

Reusing breast milk

If your breast milk is freshly expressed, it can keep for up to 6 hours without refrigeration. It can be stored in a fridge at 5 to 10 degrees Celsius for up to 3 days, or up to 8 days at 0 to 4 degrees Celsius. You can also store breast milk in a freezer at -18 degrees Celsius or below for up to 6 months.

Our How to Store Expressed Breastmilk and Feeding Expressed Breastmilk blogs provide detailed information on storing and reusing breast milk.

Some mothers also express a little colostrum (first milk, rich in carbohydrates, protein, and antibodies) to freeze during the last trimester of pregnancy, in case either they or their baby face feeding difficulties at birth.

If you are expressing shortly after birth, colostrum can be stored at temperatures of up to 32ºC for 12 hours for a full-term baby. You will express very small quantities, a teaspoon or so each time for the first couple of days. On days 3 – 5 after your baby is born, your breasts will start to produce ‘mature milk’ and the volume of milk you produce will also increase.

If your baby is unable to come to your breast it is important to begin expressing as soon as you can and to express as often as your baby would feed; about 8-12 times in 24 hours in the early days.

Problems with pumping breast milk?

Expression of breast milk is a learned skill, so don’t be disheartened if you do not seem to be expressing much milk at first.

Pumps work by generating and releasing suction to remove milk from the breast. You may find it helps if you prepare a little beforehand.

Stress and cool body temperature can make pumping less productive, so you could try using a warm compress, breast massage, and relaxation techniques.  It also helps to have a photograph of your baby to look at, or a piece of their recently worn clothing to remind you of their smell. You may find that after an early morning feed is a good time to express, as often your supply is plentiful at this time. 

We hope this guide has been useful in explaining how to express breastmilk using various manual and electric methods. For more breastfeeding and pumping information, check out our blog - and don’t forget to browse through our full range of Breast Pumps to find the right pump for you.

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