Expressing Your Milk — How and Why

Breast Milk ExpressingExpressing your milk is something you may wish to consider if you plan to go back to work or otherwise share feeding duties with somebody else. It’s not something that you have to do — a lot of women are under the impression that we must express, but there’s no reason to unless you particularly want or need time away from your baby. Remember also that it is not recommended to introduce any kind of artificial teat before the age of 6 weeks in order to allow breastfeeding to establish; however, the longer you can leave it, the better. Babies will usually quite happily take expressed milk from a spoon, syringe or cup, and by the time they get to 5 or 6 months old, most of them will be able to drink from a sippy cup without any issues.

One of the most important things to remember is that expressing sometimes doesn’t work all that well for every woman. Some people seem to be able to pump gallons of milk in a short period of time; others struggle to get a few drops. The amount you can pump has absolutely nothing to do with your milk supply. Some women, myself included, are able to pump in the early weeks and months of their babies lives, but start to struggle when their milk supply settles down to adapt to their babies exact needs. However, if you need to persevere with pumping, there are lots of things you can try to make it more effective.

There are a few different ways and means of expressing your milk; you can do it by hand, or you can use a pump. Pumps come in many shapes and sizes, both manual and electric. You can buy them, or in some areas you will be able to hire hospital-grade electric breast pumps from your local maternity unit or breastfeeding support group.

Here I am going to outline some of the different methods of expressing your milk, their pro’s and cons, and tips to make it work. Look out for another article coming soon on how to safely store your milk for future use.

Hand Expression
Hand expression is just that — expressing your milk by hand. It is useful if you are only going to express every now and then, although if you will need to do it more than once every so often it is probably worth investing in a manual pump. Hand expression can be very effective if done properly; sometimes more effective than a pump, depending on the woman. One very effective way of getting the milk out is via the Marmet Technique. It is a series of rolling, tugging and compressing movements which is far more natural (and usually more comfortable) than a breast pump. Many women who have previously not had much luck with pumps have been able to express a bountiful supply of milk using this technique. There are many instructional sites and videos online to refer to, and reliable information on the Marmet Technique is available via La Leche League.

Manual Breast Pumps
These don’t cost a lot of money, and they are ideal if you only need to express on occasion. A lot of them are compact enough to travel with you wherever you need to go, which is ideal if you need to relieve your breasts of milk whilst away from your baby. They are quiet, too, which makes them more discreet to use. I once used one in a public toilet! They usually have a few parts to assemble, some less than others, but once you get the hang of them they are easy to use. They have a soft padded sheath that goes inside the flange (the bit that goes over your boob) which is designed to help massage the breast and encourage the milk to flow. The milk will travel down the pump into a bottle that can unscrew and go straight in your fridge or freezer.

Electric/Hospital Grade Breast Pumps
These are the bees knees when it comes to pumping. They are expensive, so not generally worth investing in unless you need to pump very frequently. Most of them come with two attachments, so that you can pump from both breasts at once. You will be able to adjust the speed, and the force of the pumping, to make it as baby-like and comfortable for you as you can. The bells-and-whistles hospital grade pumps are usually available to hire from maternity units in hospitals; many women with premature babies in the neonatal unit/NICU will hire them in order to encourage their milk to start, and stay, flowing.

So how can you increase the effectiveness of your hand expressing and pumping sessions?

1) Encouraging milk let-down. This is usually the first stumbling block for most women. No matter how good your pump is, it’s no match for a baby. Oxytocin, also known as ‘The Love Hormone’, is the hormone responsible for the let-down reflex that starts your milk flowing at each feed. Getting the milk flowing in the first place is half the battle to successful expression. Here are some things you can try:

  • Expressing near your baby, or with a picture of your baby to look at. Often a sleepsuit or blanket with their smell on it can help the milk flow.
  • During a feed, express from the breast that your baby is not feeding from. This way, your baby can take care of the let down reflex and your pump can do the rest!
  • Warmth can help. Try expressing your milk in the bath, or resting a warm washcloth on your breast.
  • Relax! If you are tense it is much less likely to be a successful attempt.

2) Using the right equipment. It is a little-known fact that different women require different sizes of flange — this is the trumpet-shaped part of the pump that goes over the breast. If you find that your expressing attempts aren’t going very well, its worth trying a different size of flange. If you have large breasts, you will likely need a larger size, and vice versa. You can’t usually get different sizes in the pumps widely available on the market, but you should be able to obtain one for an electric or hospital grade pump. Talk to somebody at your local maternity unit or breastfeeding support group for advice.

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