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Expressing and pumping breast milk: your questions answered

Not sure where to start when it comes to expressing or pumping breast milk? In this guide, you’ll find expert advice, smart tips from mums who’ve mastered it, and all the answers to your most pressing breast-pumping questions. We’ve got you covered!

By Tammy Jacks | Last updated Aug 8, 2023

Woman holding baby after pumping milk

It might seem daunting at first, but expressing and pumping breast milk isn’t too complicated once you get the hang of it. Mumsnet user, PrimeraVez explains how pumping became part of her life. She says, “I pumped because I went back to work when my twins were four months old. I pumped milk whilst I was at work for them to drink during the day and the following day. Once my supply was established, I also pumped whenever I could be bothered so I had a constant stash in the fridge and freezer. This meant I could go out and DH could give them a bottle and DH could help out with night feeds.”

Whether you’re a new mum and looking to optimise your pumping routine or needing to exclusively pump in the first few weeks (or months), you probably have questions! Maybe you're wondering how to choose the best breast pump, and whether pumping will affect your milk supply. We have all the answers to these questions and more, plus tips and first-hand advice from Mumsnetters who’ve pumped or expressed milk successfully, along with expert guidance from the NHS and La Leche League GB.

Read on to find out everything you need to know about expressing and pumping breast milk, including how to do it comfortably and efficiently.

Why pump breast milk?

Using a breast pump to extract milk from your breast can either be done manually with a hand pump or electronically using an electric breast pump that gently gets the job done, allowing you to transfer breast milk into a bottle. Pumping is used for many reasons:

  • According to La Leche League GB, pumping (or expressing by hand) helps you to establish or maintain milk production if you’re separated from your baby or if he isn’t breastfeeding well.

  • Pumping or expressing milk regularly can help increase production if you’re running low.

  • Giving your partner or a caregiver the chance to feed your little one if you can’t be there for every feed, thus allowing for more flexibility.  Mumsnet user, SillyBry says “Pumping is a great supplement to breastfeeding. I pumped once a day for my first, so she had a bottle at 10.30ish pm that hubby could give her. This meant I could get to bed earlier and he had some time with my baby. Also gave me the freedom to go out and not worry she might be hungry whilst I was out... I could leave some milk in the fridge.”

  • Alleviating engorgement and discomfort, especially if your baby is unable to nurse for a period or is starting to sleep for longer periods at a time – good news!

  • Planned a night out? Pumping ahead allows you to still feed your baby breastmilk, whilst giving you the chance to enjoy spicy food, some caffeine or a glass of wine without worrying.  

  • If your baby was born prematurely, has difficulty latching or is sick in hospital, pumping ensures your baby still has breastmilk whilst being cared for.

Read next: The best baby monitors - tried and tested by Mumsnetters

One of the main reasons for pumping is the opportunity to store breast milk for future bottle feeds as Mumsnet user, Atla explains:

“I used to pump every four hours and get as much as I could, then freeze the excess to use at a later date. I had a microwave steriliser and a plug-in steam steriliser, breast milk storage bags and loads of bottles. You really want to have enough milk to be a couple of feeds ahead, if that makes sense.”

Mumsnetter GemmaJen also pumps for convenience, adding… “I pump regularly. For me it means there's milk if I'm out or don't want to breastfeed. We also give a bottle before bed to top her up and help her sleep. My baby is happy to take the bottle or breast - we introduced bottles early as I was having pain when feeding. But I'm glad we did as it makes things more convenient.”

PlanDeRaccordement outlines the pumping routine she established with four kids: “I had to go back to work full time when they were three months old, so I needed to establish my supply first. For the first six weeks, I breastfed only. Then I started to add in the pump to freeze and build up a stash. I would feed my baby and then pump afterwards. I also added a pumping session in the morning during their nap.

Since birth, I’d feed my baby and then hand them off to DH who would do the nappy change/holding and at night, settle back to sleep. By week eight, my baby was trained to the bottle with DH feeding them. By my return to work, I had a good freezer stash to give to the nursery who would thaw, warm and feed the baby my expressed breast milk.”

How do you hand-express milk?

Did you know that hand expressing can remove milk from parts of your breast which a traditional breast pump can’t? When expressing with your hands, La Leche League GB advises having plenty of skin-to-skin contact with your baby first as this stimulates the let-down reflex. Then, follow these steps from the NHS on how to hand-express milk:

  1. Find a comfortable spot, ideally in a warm and quiet room where you can relax without disruptions, and ensure the container is easily accessible nearby.

  2. Begin by gently massaging your breasts with warm hands, starting from your armpit and moving towards your nipple using long strokes.

  3. Then create a C-shape by cupping your breast with your finger and thumb, positioning them about 2cm to 3cm back from your nipple in opposite directions, like 12 o'clock and 6 o'clock on a clock face.

  4. Press your thumb and fingers together gently, release, and repeat the rhythmic movement. Be patient, as it might take a few minutes. Eventually, your breast milk (or colostrum) will begin to drip out slowly. Keep going, try to find a rhythm, and know that you're doing great!

  5. Once your supply slows down from that angle, switch it up and express from a different area. For instance, try positioning your finger and thumb at 11 o'clock and 5 o'clock.

  6. Once you’ve expressed as much as you can from one breast, take a short breather, then move on to your other breast.

Related: The best nursing chairs for breast and bottle feeds

Does pumping or expressing affect your milk supply?

bottle of breast milk with mom and baby in background

Your body is pretty smart and produces breast milk on a supply-and-demand basis. This essentially means that the more you feed (or express using your hand or a breast pump), the more milk your body will produce to keep up with demand. And, as we’ve mentioned above, pumping or expressing milk can help to regulate and maintain your supply, should you be separated from your baby for any length of time.  

La Leche League GB points out that “If you’re expressing to establish milk production, making extra milk in the early days can make it easier to produce more milk later on, to keep up with your baby’s needs.” Mumsnetter vincettenoir agrees:

“Breastfeeding is a lot easier than pumping. But pumping is great for getting up your supply and if you’ve always got some pumped milk in the fridge, it gives the option for going to sleep and missing a feed (providing there’s someone to help) or having a glass of wine every now and again.”

Studies have also shown that mothers of preterm babies born before 32 weeks, can reach full lactation (where the body successfully establishes and regulates the production of breast milk to meet a baby’s demands), using hospital-grade breast pumps with every feed.

If you have any concerns about your milk supply, it’s important to speak to your healthcare provider, midwife or lactation consultant who will be able to identify any potential issues.

How much expressed milk should you feed your baby?

La Leche League GB advises, “If you need to establish milk production without breastfeeding your newborn baby, aim to express 8–12 times per 24 hours including at least once during the night to mimic your baby’s natural breastfeeding pattern.” Remember though that your baby’s appetite may change at different times of day and from day to day, just like yours, so it’s a good idea to be mindful of this and express on demand in the early days to establish your milk supply.

If you’re keen to understand exactly how much expressed milk your baby needs, the National Child Trust (NCT) suggests around 90 – 120 ml per feed for a baby over a month old. However, it’s important to note that all babies are different and it’s essential that you learn your own little one’s habits. For instance, some babies drink less per feed, but like to drink more frequently, whereas others may drink more in one feed.

Related: The best changing bags for all your baby gear

How do breast pumps work?

Breast pumps work by simulating your baby's natural sucking action, which triggers your body's letdown response. There are two main types of breast pump:

Manual breast pumps: Operated by hand, these pumps have a flange (the part that covers the breast) that goes over the nipple and areola and uses an ergonomic handle or lever to create suction. By repeatedly squeezing the handle, the pump mimics the sucking motion of a baby, gently drawing milk from the breast into a collection container.

Electric breast pumps: Electric pumps are powered by an electric motor, which generates suction to extract breast milk. They offer various settings, including speed and intensity levels, allowing you to customise the pumping experience. Electric pumps are generally more efficient and typically suitable for those who need to pump regularly or have a higher milk supply.

Both manual and electric pumps usually come with a breast shield (flange), a collection container, and tubing to transfer the milk to a bottle.

The latest breast pumps may also feature additional functions, such as double pumping where both breasts are pumped simultaneously, or be discreet and wearable, fitting just inside your bra, thus saving time and potentially increasing milk production.

Here's our guide to the best breast pumps to buy.

How do you use a breast pump?

Mum lying with newborn

This largely depends on the breast pump you buy. Nowadays there are plenty of different models to choose from. For instance, some breast pumps have both manual and electric functions, allowing you to alternate between the two modes, whereas others extract milk from one (singular) or two (double) breasts at the same time.

Most types have adjustable suction and rhythm levels so you can pump based on the time you have available as well as your general comfort level. Before you settle for a particular breast pump, be sure to check that the breast pump flange will fit comfortably and is the right size for your nipple.

Mumsnetter WotsitMum advises, “I exclusively pumped for 13 months and would have gone longer if my supply hadn't dried up due to falling pregnant again! I'd recommend to 'size' your nipple to get the correct flange size. I found microwave sterilising bags the easiest, quick to sterilise and perfect on the go! Invest in a hands-free pump bra, even if you're plugged to the wall, at least you can sit and play with your baby and use the purple tube nipple cream when pumping, it prevents pain and blisters.”

Mumsnetter frankiefirstyear also recommends a breast pump bra. She says, “I used a double electric pump (it could take batteries but wasn't powerful enough). I bought a pump bra which helped a little as I could at least fall asleep a bit while pumping. I'd have two-hour breaks where I didn't pump, and I'd wake up during the night to pump even if DC didn't wake (to increase my supply so I could stock up). I had to top up feeds with formula too though.”

Here are three simple steps to help you pump efficiently:

  1. Find a quiet and private space where you can sit comfortably.

  2. Before starting the actual pumping, it's essential to stimulate the let-down reflex to encourage milk flow. As we mentioned, skin-to-skin contact with your little one helps to get things going, or simply massage your breasts gently and use a warm compress.

  3. Once you feel a tingling sensation or see milk dripping, start pumping. Make sure the breast pump is set to a comfortable, yet effective suction level. Pump for about 10-15 minutes per breast or until the milk flow slows down.

A note to remember: Before use, it’s always important to read the instructions carefully, including the cleaning instructions to ensure you’re cleaning all parts thoroughly before each use.

Related: The best nursing bras to support breastfeeding and pumping

How often should you pump?

You might be wondering if you should pump milk as often as you’d breastfeed your little one. Well, according to the NHS, it’s best to pump or express milk eight to 12 times in a 24-hour period, as this mimics your baby’s natural feeding pattern.

Additionally, the NHS advises not sticking to a rigid routine, but rather pumping as your schedule allows, which might mean pumping more often at certain times of the day.

However, it’s important not to have gaps of more than four hours in the day and six hours at night. In fact, it’s a good idea to pump milk at night between 2 am – 4 am as this is when your body releases prolactin – the hormone that makes milk.  

Mumsnetter triplechoc details her experience: “I used to pump after every time DS had fed, so every 3-4 hours, including through the night. He used to fall asleep after feeding so I could put him down once winded and pump. Overnight I had a mini-fridge upstairs to put the fresh milk in.” 

Mumsnet user JBFletcher90 explains how she timed her pumping sessions… “Personally, whilst exclusive pumping was a labour of love, I would do it again in a heartbeat. The challenging time was when I was establishing my supply in the early months and I was pumping every three hours religiously, which meant a pump at 12am, 3am and 6am.

But I was able to stretch out the time between pumps and got to pumping at 11pm and then not having to pump until 6am once DC was about 5-6 months without affecting supply or waking up engorged and leaking milk everywhere!”

Some Mumsnetters have combined pumping and breastfeeding at the same time. Blondebear123 says:

“I pumped and breastfed from day two. I’m currently still doing this, six months in. This is my second child and this also worked well for my first. I put baby on one side and pump the other at the same time.”

How do you clean a breast pump?

They might look complicated, but the truth is, the latest breast pumps on the market have been designed to be cleaned simply and efficiently, which is a good thing because it’s important to clean your breast pump after every use to maintain hygiene and reduce the risk of contamination.

As all breast pumps differ, it’s a good idea to read the care instructions carefully and follow the manufacturer’s cleaning guidelines and recommendations. Some breast pumps may have dishwasher-safe components, so refer to the instruction manual for specific details.

Here are a few general steps to follow when cleaning your breast pump:

  1. Before handling the breast pump or any breast milk-related equipment, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water.

  2. Take apart all the removable parts of the breast pump, including the breast shields, valves, and bottles. Check your breast pump's instruction manual for specific disassembly guidelines.

  3. Rinse all the separated parts under cold running water to remove any residual milk. The cold water helps to prevent the milk proteins from sticking to the surfaces, making it easier to clean.

  4. Then, clean with warm, soapy water using a mild dishwashing soap that’s free of fragrance and harsh chemicals. Submerge all the pump parts in soapy water.

  5. Use a bottle brush or a dedicated breast pump brush to clean each part thoroughly. Pay special attention to any nooks, crevices, and valves where milk residue might accumulate.

  6. After scrubbing, rinse all the parts under warm running water to remove soap residues.

  7. Sanitize the pump parts by boiling them in water for about five minutes. Alternatively, you can use a steam steriliser or follow the microwave steam method recommended by the pump's manufacturer. Don’t have a steam steriliser? Mumsnet user Marmite 27 uses cold water sterilising. She says, “You change the water every 24 hours and put either a tablet or Milton fluid in it. Chuck everything in once it’s washed and after 15 minutes it’s sterilised.”

  8. Place all the washed and sanitised pump parts on a clean drying rack or a paper towel. Allow them to air dry completely before reassembling or storing them.

  9. Once the breast pump parts are dry, store them in a clean, covered container or a sealable plastic bag until the next use.

Some breast pumps come with more than one bottle for easy cleaning and storage. Mumsnet user Katemarie says “Once you get past the cluster feeding stage, I found that I could usually pump once a day or so, normally in the evening as DS would have a good long sleep which gave me the chance. I have an Ardo Calypso pump that does single or double pumping. It came with several little bottles to pump into, so I didn’t have to wash everything after every pump….”

Read next: The best cribs and bedside co-sleepers for night feeds and naps