Pumping 101: How to Pump Breastmilk for Your Baby

There are few things less bizarre about early motherhood than that first time you turn on a breast pump to express milk for your baby. But once you get past the awkwardness of your first time at the pump, you gain an appreciation for your body — your functioning breasts and hormones, an appreciation for this machine — just press a button and after minutes there is milk in a bottle?!, and an appreciation for your baby — a wonder, perhaps, how this little being transfers milk every few hours and is growing more and more plump from your precious food. Still, I know the look of bewilderment that first time.

Whether your baby is hours, weeks, or months old, there are a few universal tips that can help maximize your effort and make the process that much more enjoyable.

Prepare the Pump

Of course the first thing to do is get familiar with your pump. Read through the manual to make sure you have all the parts needed and that they’re connected properly. Most pumps won’t work if they’re not properly assembled, and many of the manufacturers offer tutorials on their websites if you need help. You can also reach out to a lactation consultant, as most are well-versed in the variety of breast pumps available today. Make sure your pump parts and hands are clean; this helps ensure the shelf-life for your milk.

Prepare the Breast

Before you turn on the pump, take a few minutes to massage the breast or both breasts. If your breasts feel uncomfortably full, try using some moist heat either while you massage or just before. It is recommended that you pump both breasts at the same time unless you feel better having a hand free to massage one breast at a time while you pump the other. You could also pump just one side if you know you have an oversupply of milk and routinely use only one breast per feeding. The more you practice, the more in touch with your body you become, and the easier this all gets.

Massaging the breast helps to gently work the milk from the breast tissue and milk ducts all around your breast towards the nipple, with some extra focus on the armpit area.

Hook Up and Let Down

When you’re ready to begin pumping, affix the plastic flanges to your breast so that your nipple goes right into the middle of the opening in the flange. You can adjust the positioning once you turn the pump on but make sure you have the right sized flanges for you so that no part of your nipple is rubbing on the inside of the flange.

Always begin with a low suction. You should also plan to use the lowest suction setting on the pump that still effectively gets the milk out. A lot of people crank up the suction in the hopes that they will express more milk in less time. But while you may need to increase the suction over weeks and months of pumping, depending of the frequency you pump, be very careful not to damage your nipples by being overzealous.

Now, most hospital grade or high end double electric pumps begin with a rapid cycle of suction, as if to mimic a hungry baby latching on and sucking quickly to stretch the nipple and elicit a ‘let down’ of milk. Everyone experiences the release of milk, or let down, differently — rapidly or slowly, squirting or dripping, feeling tingling or momentary pinching or nothing at all. And quite often there are multiple let downs per breastfeeding or pumping session.

Get Into the Rhythm

Once you’ve had the pump on with a rapid suction for 1–2 minutes, some pumps will switch over to a slower, more rhythmic suction. Again, the pump is trying to mimic the baby settling into the drinking portion of the feeding. If you notice you are experiencing let down before the pump switches over to this slower setting or your pump doesn’t automatically switch modes, feel free to switch it manually by dialing down the speed.

When the milk stops flowing, usually some minutes later, you should try to elicit another let down by increasing the speed as well as slightly increasing the suction. Give your body a few minutes again with the rapid sucking, and then slow the speed if you see milk coming out again.

Know When to Stop

To fully drain the breast, you should plan to pump for approximately 15–22 minutes or for 2–3 minutes after milk is no longer coming out of the breast. Some people think that pumping for longer periods means you’ll get more milk. This may be true for that session, but it is better for your milk supply (and probably a better use of your time) to pump more frequently than to pump for a longer duration. Keep in mind that the rate of milk being emptied from your breast affects the rate at which your breasts fill with milk and that an empty breast fills faster than a less empty breast so plan to massage and manually express a bit more milk after you turn off your pump.

In order to maintain a full supply of milk when you’re away from your baby, plan to pump whenever the baby eats or at least every 2–4 hours (depending on you and your baby’s breastfeeding relationship).

Additional Tips: Eliciting Let Down

  • Quench your thirst. While increased fluid consumption doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll make more milk, it certainly helps to stay hydrated, and what better time to chug those fluids than when you’re sitting down and asking your body to let the milk flow!
  • • Daydream about your baby. If you’re away from baby, imagine being with him to recreate the connection; try looking at a picture of your little one or smelling something that has been near the baby. Sometimes even hearing another baby cry can elicit your let down.
  • • Relax. Take some deep breaths or practice relaxation techniques to help your body settle into a calm place so you can release.
  • Pumping your breasts can be awkward at first, but when you are away from your baby, there is no better way to feel connected than knowing he or she is still getting your milk. Happy pumping, everyone!