When can you start pumping breast milk?

breast pump with breast milk against the background of a mother holding child.

by Stephanie Anthony |

The answer to the question of when can you start pumping breast milk is not necessarily straightforward and it’s not the same for every mother. In the UK the NHS recommends that you don’t use a breast pump until your breast milk and your breastfeeding journey is established, around 6-8 weeks. However, if you’re separated from your baby at birth, whether due to a premature or traumatic birth, then a breast pump might be integral to getting your breastfeeding journey off to a positive start.

As with breastfeeding, pumping can take a bit of trial and error and figuring out what works best for your body. You may also find you need to try a few types of breast pump, such as a manual breast pump and an electric breast pump, to discover what works best for you.

If you decide to breastfeed your baby, it's a good idea to purchase a breast pump as there may come a point where you need to consider expressing your breast milk.

Author and breastfeeding mentor Danielle Facey says, "I recommend having a breast pump if you want to breastfeed, even if you’re not sure whether you want to introduce a bottle. I'd advise buying one before baby arrives, to get to grips with it and understand how it works, even try it out perhaps if you're past 37 weeks. It can be really important when establishing your breastfeeding journey in the early days. For the first four days with my son, he didn’t latch on, and I had to hand express colostrum. Looking back it would have been easier to be pumping."

Expressing breast milk could help relieve breast engorgement when your breasts feel painful, boost your milk flow, allow you to feed twins or premature babies or keep milk levels up if your baby is struggling to feed.

However, it’s important to understand what role pumping can play in the breastfeeding journey.

How often should I be pumping?

Again, this depends on each individual and the reason you've introduced pumping, whether it be to establish your breastfeeding journey, to increase supply, or for comfort.

If you’re feeding your baby exclusively with expressed milk and aren’t breastfeeding, you should express as often as you would normally breastfeed your baby to maintain milk production (about eight times a day). If you only feed your baby pumped milk from time to time, then pumping occasionally between feeds is enough.

Pumping can help if you’re struggling with a low supply, but it can trigger an oversupply if you start pumping too much too soon, which is why the NHS advice of not pumping until baby is 6-8 weeks is recommended.

"I’ve experienced this first hand," says Danielle, "I actually started pumping in about week one as I thought I needed to create this massive freezer stash, but I really didn’t need to do that. What it did was cause an oversupply, which was quite painful, I had lots of engorgement and clogged ducts. If I’d have understood a little more about pumping and the way that breastfeeding works I wouldn’t necessarily have done that quite as soon, I’d have waited a few more weeks and have understood that the more you pump the more milk your breasts will produce."

Pumping to increase supply

If you’re looking to increase your supply you should nurse or pump more often, particularly overnight. This is sometimes called power pumping.

"Every time you nurse your child you’re sending a signal to your brain to produce more milk, so the more that you nurse or pump, the more milk that your breasts will produce." explains Danielle. "These signals are increased overnight, which is why night nursing or pumping is really important for maintaining your supply."

In the early days feeling like you have massive swollen breasts can feel like a good thing and that you've got loads of milk, but actually when our breasts are fullest we are producing less milk because that’s what the signals are telling our brains, as the milk isn’t actually going anywhere. The more frequently that you remove milk from your breasts, the more milk your breasts will produce.

The less that you pump or nurse, the less milk you’ll produce. "You shouldn’t just pump for the sake of it because you might trigger an oversupply, but to know you have the power to increase your supply when you pump is really powerful too." Danielle adds.

Pumping for comfort

If you’re not emptying your breasts completely you might just pump for comfort – perhaps if you’re away from your little one for a while or you’re starting to wean. In these situations pumping can release some of the pressure if your breasts are really full and making you uncomfortable.

If you don’t release the pressure here you could be at the risk of developing clogged ducts or even mastitis

Returning to work and expressing

Expressing also means you can involve your partner more in feeding and continue breastfeeding once you return to work. Some mums express milk during working hours to maintain their milk supply and so that their baby can be fed this expressed milk from a bottle. Some parents opt for mixed feeding, also called combination feeding. This means continuing to breastfeed and offering suitable alternative milk when you're not able to breastfeed.

Pumping at work two or three times a day should be enough to keep up your supply.

How long should I express for?

While some may only take five minutes to produce milk, others may take longer. Focus on the flow of the milk rather than how long you express for, as the time it takes to express your milk will vary from mother to mother. If you are struggling, you might want to express on one breast while feeding your baby on the other as this can help you produce oxytocin which can speed up the milk flow.

The first time you express, you may find you don’t manage to collect much milk. And the second time… and the third time! This isn’t a sign that your body isn’t producing enough, it just means you need a bit more practice. So, if you’re returning to work or planning a night away from your baby, don’t leave it until the last minute to try expressing for the first time. Get in lots of pumping sessions beforehand.

How much milk should I express?

If you're pumping early on in your breastfeeding journey, you’ll find that your early pumping sessions will yield a small amount of milk. But don’t worry, your newborn only needs small feeds at first because their stomach is only around the size of a cherry!

As your baby's tummy grows, the amount of breast milk you’re able to collect with each pump will gradually increase until you get into a steady routine of feeding and pumping.

You may not notice a huge change in the amount of breast milk you collect over time, but breast milk is clever stuff. Its composition and calorie count change and adapt alongside your baby's development over time, so the same volume of milk is sufficient for a baby as they continue to grow.

When is the best time to pump?

The best time to express milk varies from person to person, but experts advise pumping immediately after a breastfeeding session. However, some mothers prefer to wait an hour before pumping. Try different times and you will notice when to use a breast pump to express the most milk most comfortably for you.

If you exclusively pump before establishing feeding you will need to pump at least 8-10 times a day for a minimum of 30 mins for each breast pumping session – and from both breasts.

Tips for pumping

1 - You’ll find it much easier to express your milk if you can see, hear or smell your baby. The reason for this is a hormone called oxytocin. "Most mums think their babies suck milk out of their breast," says lactation consultant Angela Cartwright. "But actually when your baby suckles, your body produces oxytocin, which makes your breast push milk out to your baby." This is called the let-down reflex.

2 - Avoid sore nipples by popping a smear of nipple cream or petroleum jelly inside the funnel, so it doesn’t rub.
If you’re using an electric pump, begin on its lowest setting while you check to see if you’ve positioned it comfortably. Then turn it up to whatever level works for you, and gets your milk flowing.

3 - When pumping one breast you may notice milk leaking out of your other nipple. This is normal, and a result of your let-down reflex. "Use a breast shell to collect any milk that leaks from your other breast so it doesn’t go to waste," suggests Angela. These leaks are milk that’s stored in your breast between feeds, and tends to be low in fat and low in protein, as well as quite high in sugar. It stops the more valuable, higher-protein milk from coming out. It’s fine to use this for an occasional feed, but if you’re weaning, then mix this in with food."

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