Beginner’s guide to using a breast pump – pumping 101

Title Image - Beginner's guide to breast pumping

You should also check out our breast pump comparisons and buying guide.

Can I pump while I’m still pregnant?

Expressing milk, either with your hands or with a pump while you are pregnant can send you into labor. Thus many experts do not recommend pumping until after your 37th week of pregnancy. On the other hand, if you’re overdue, you can try pumping to induce labor. Toward the end of your pregnancy, you may notice that your nipples start leaking. The breast milk that you produce during this time is called colostrum, or the rich pre-milk that comes before your regular breast milk. Colostrum is rich and thicker than regular breast milk and it contains a lot of vital nutrients and antibodies for your baby’s first feeding. If your baby cannot nurse for whatever reason (c-section, inverted nipples, cleft palette, or if he’s in the NICU) you can pump out your colostrum and breast milk and bottle feed. This is vital as your breast milk is an important part of building your baby’s immune system and even if you can’t nurse, it is still better to express breast milk for your baby instead of giving them formula for their first feeding.
If you are leaking milk, express by using your hands instead of a pump. Contrary to logic, pumping will drain your breasts, but it can also make your milk come in even stronger. Massage your breasts in a circle and then squeezing towards your nipples to get rid of the few drops of milk that’s building up. You will want to get nursing pads to soak up any leaks and prevent any accidents.
One exception to not pumping during pregnancy is for diabetic moms who plan to breastfeed exclusively. Since your supply of milk will vary depending on your blood sugar levels, you will want to start building up a backup supply during the last weeks of your pregnancy. Otherwise you will need to have some formula on hand for those times when you cannot nurse due to low blood sugar.

So how soon after I give birth should I start to pump?

While you can begin pumping as soon as you give birth, it’s best to wait until about one week after when your milk really starts coming in. Before this point, you will be producing colostrum and a small amount of mature milk. This amount is small enough that most of it will be wasted in the pump parts.
The exception to this rule is if you have problems nursing. In these following situations you should use your pump to express milk.

  • If you cannot nurse at the breast for any reason, then you should pump as often as you can tolerate to encourage your milk supply to grow and bottle feed your baby.
  • If your baby is not gaining enough weight in the first week. In these cases, most doctors will recommend that you supplement with formula. If you want to avoid this, you can pump more in between feedings and use any breastmilk you have kept in storage.
  • If your baby doesn’t empty your breast completely after each feeding. Wait until your baby has finished nursing for a couple minutes, and then use your pump to completely empty your breasts. This is also a good way to increase your milk supply.
  • If your baby is a preemie, then breastfeeding might be impossible. You will want to pump earlier so your baby will have access to your antibody and nutrient rich colostrum to build up their immune system against infections.
  • Some women have a strong and forceful let down that can choke babies. Some women manually express out the first spurts of milk before nursing their babies, but you can also use a breast pump to express out this initial milk before letting your baby nurse at your breast.

What are the disadvantages to using a breast pump to express milk?

While pumping can be a breast way to supplement nursing your baby from your breast, there are some times when you will want to refrain.
If you want your baby to nurse from your breast until they’re weaned, you should avoid giving your baby a bottle until after they’re 2-3 weeks old. Introducing a bottle and teat too early can cause nipple confusion. Some babies will prefer the plastic teat and refuse to nurse from your own breast once this happens.
You will want to avoid using a breast pump if you already have a strong oversupply of breast milk. Pumping will build up your milk supply you will want to avoid any extra stimulation to your breasts.

How to stimulate let-down when pumping.

If you’re a mom frustrated by a slow start to your milk flow, here are some tips to get your milk to let down.

  1. Before you go out to buy a different breast pump or new accessories, try a gentle massage before you start pumping. Massage is an effective and easy way to send signals to your nerves to start the let down response. Using your knuckles, roll from the outer edges of your breast toward your nipples. Repeat this rolling motion in a circle around your breast, be sure to focus on any part of your breast that feels swollen and full. After your knuckle massage, try to express some milk with your hands into your pump’s flange.
  2. Relax! Practice deep breathing and relaxing visualization before you begin. Try to find a place that’s draft free and warm to pump. If you feel yourself getting cold and freezing up, try to pump after a warm, relaxing shower or bath. Nervousness can affect the strength of your let down.
  3. Similarly, bring things that remind you of your baby. This is a particularly good way to calm your mind and get your body in the mood to produce milk flow, especially when you’re pumping in an uncomfortable and sterile environment like your workplace or a public restroom. Look at pictures of your baby and close your eyes. Visualize your baby in your arms and snuggled up against your chest. Bring some of his/her clothes that you can hold and smell as you get ready to pump. As you picture your baby at your breast, imagine that you can smell the sweet scent of his/her skin and scalp.
  4. Some pumps like the Spectra pumps allow you to vary the speed and pattern of suction. A good way to stimulate let down is to mimic the sucking pattern of your own baby. If your breast pump cannot be programmed, you should be able to adjust the suction speed manually. In addition to speed, the strength of suction can affect let down. You want to find a pump with suction that’s strong enough to encourage milk flow, but not strong enough to cause pain! Again, the Spectra pumps allow you to adjust the strength of suction to find the best fit for you.
  5. Make sure you have the right size flange for your nipples. Your nipple should be able to move freely within the flange each time there’s suction from the pump, but your flange should not be so large that your areola gets sucked in.
  6. If your breast pump allows an additional tube/flange for double pumping, take advantage of it! Double pumping is proven to stimulate let down and it also increases the amount of milk output. Plus, you’ll be finished pumping in half the amount of time.

How to find the right setting on your breast pump. Stronger is not better.

One of the biggest misconceptions that people have about pumping is that stronger suction equals more breast milk. Not only is this false, but using a setting that’s too strong can cause redness and painful rashes. It can also make pumping so uncomfortable that the build up of anxiety leads to a decrease in milk flow.

The correct way to stimulate milk flow with your breast pump is to take advantage of the massage/letdown mode and expression mode. Letdown mode mimics the rapid sucking motion that a baby makes when she starts to feed and it should be enough to get your milk to start flowing. The next step is to use the expression mode on your pump. This is the standard mode used when pumping breast milk. Pump until you feel your milk flow begin to dwindle.

You may be tempted to turn up the pump to get more milk out. Don’t do this! Instead, switch back to letdown mode. It may take a couple minutes, but you will eventually stimulate another letdown and be able to continue pumping.

How to pump when you’re separated from your baby.

Pumping when you’re away from your baby can be difficult, but sometimes you have no choice, especially if you’re a working mother. Many women who have to pump when they’re separated from their baby report problems with getting their milk to let down and lower milk flow despite their breasts feeling full.

The easiest way to solve this problem is to bring reminders of your baby with you! Look at pictures of your baby and watch videos of them on your phone when you need to start pumping. Bring some of their clothing (worn, but not dirty!) with you so you have their scent.

With a visual and olfactory (smell) reminder of your child, close your eyes and visualize them suckling at your breast. Imagine you are smelling them in your arms. Imagine the suction of the breast pump is their mouth sucking at your nipple.

The goal is to relax as much as possible and to trick your body into believing your baby is nursing at your breast. This is the key to pumping successfully when your baby’s not nearby and you need a bit of encouragement to stimulate milk flow.

How to get a comfortable pain-free pump. Selecting the right size flanges (breastshields).

If you’re using a breast balm like lasinoh and still have problems with soreness or chafing, then you might be using an incorrectly sized breastshield.

One of the most common complaints about using a breast pump is pain while pumping. Nine times out of ten this pain is caused by an incorrect flange size. The flange (also called a breastshield) is the part of the pump that cups your areola and nipples and there’s a little tube where your nipple fits inside.

A correctly sized flange should allow your nipple to move freely inside the tube each time there’s suction from the pump.

A flange that’s too small will result in your nipples rubbing against the plastic sides of the tube surrounding your nipple. This can cause redness and chafing over time and some women report raw and sore nipples. As you can imagine, this will make pumping a painful event that you won’t look forward to.

A flange that’s too big will result in your areola being sucked into the nipple tube whenever there’s suction. Excessive movement of your breast tissue will also cause chafing and redness. Ouch again!

You know you have the perfect fit when your nipple can move freely in and out inside the plastic tube, but your areola stays in place inside the cupped part of the breast shield.

Breast pumps come with one flange that’s made to fit the average nipple size, but many women will need to buy another flange, or set of flanges if you plan to double pump. So how do you buy the right size?

You will need to measure the diameter of your nipple when it is hard. Measure across the widest part at the base. Take this measurement in millimeters as flanges are sold by mm. Measure each nipple as most people are not perfectly symmetrical. You might need to get differently sized flanges for each breast.

If it’s too difficult to measure straight across your nipple, wrap the tape measure around your nipple and take the circumference. Then divide this number by pi (3.14) to get the diameter. Bet you didn’t expect to find math in an article about breast pumps!

Breast pump flanges come in sizes from 21 mm-36 mm. If your measurement is borderline (within 1 mm of the flange size), it’s better to go up one size than to end up with a flange that’s too small for your nipples. So for example, if your nipple diameter is 17 mm, you’ll want to get a 21 mm flange. If your nipple diameter is 20 mm, you’ll want to get a 24 mm flange. If your nipple diameter is 25 mm you’ll want to get a 28 mm flange. And so on.

How to find your perfect pumping schedule.

Each woman’s pumping schedule is different and depends on many factors, such as her own hormone levels, diet, and the demands of her baby. Since there’s no definite rules when it comes to how often you should pump, here are some general tips to make pumping easier for you and your baby and to maximize the amount of milk you collect. These tips will work whether you are pumping to supplement natural feeding or exclusive pumping.

  • Pump early in the morning – Prolactin is the hormone responsible for milk production and prolactin levels are highest from about 12 A.M. – 4 P.M. Try to pump early in the morning (or after a nighttime feeding) to take advantage of this. If you’re a working mom, this is a good way to make sure your breasts are drained as much as possible before you have to leave for the office.
  • Pump/feed every 2-3 hours to encourage milk production – Milk production and milk flow responds to your baby’s demand and frequency of milk emptying out of your breasts. A newborn baby feeds at least 8 times a day so a good schedule to follow is to pump/feed every 2-3 hours for about 20 minutes. Some people recommend getting up at night to pump, but I think this is just a bit excessive and a healthy night’s sleep is more important!
  • Pumping for 15-20 minutes if possible – Even though you might not be producing enough milk to pump for so long, it’s shown that pumping for a while after your milk stops flowing encourages your body to produce more milk in the future.

How to pump when you’re away from home. Pumping when you’re traveling or at work.

Ideally you would be able to take your breast pump with you and pump wherever you are, whether it’s at your workplace or if you’re traveling. But what if you’re on a long roadtrip and your pump doesn’t run on battery and has to be plugged in? Or what if you’re flying and your pump is too big and heavy to take with you as a carry-on? Nevermind the hassle of trying to get your equipment past power-hungry TSA agents…

While I do not recommend hand pumps for everyday use, in these situations they can be a life saver. Hand pumps are lightweight, small enough to fit inside your purse, and low-tech. You don’t have to worry about lugging your full-sized pump with you or worry about finding a power source or your battery running out.

The most popular hand pump is the Medela Harmony Manual Breast Pump. It’s low-priced and perfect for occasional use such as when you’re traveling. There’s two types of suction on this model, a quicker let-down inducing suction to mimic when your baby latches on, and a slower and deeper suction for drawing out milk flow. The main disadvantages of this manual pump is that it can be slow and tiring to use since you have to pump by hand and the suction only lasts a couple weeks. As long as you don’t over use this pump or plan on using it as your permanent pump, it’s the perfect cheap and quick solution for pumping when you’re on the road or away from home.

While I’m a fan of hands-free pumping bras when I have access to a bathroom to change in and out of them, a good nursing bra is a better choice when you’re on the road or traveling.

How to store and freeze breast milk.

Obviously milk that’s fresh and consumed by your baby within a couple hours is the best, but what if that’s not possible? Ideally you would want to store your breast milk immediately in the refrigerator or freezer, but what if you’re pumping at work or away from home? It’s easy to keep breast milk safe, just follow these guidelines.

Before you start pumping…

  • Use clean, sterilized collection bottles (Medela collection bottles are compatible with Medela and Spectra pumps as well as several other brands) or breast milk collection pouches. Do not reuse baby bottle liners or ziploc bags!
  • Every day you will want to sterilize all parts of your pump that come into contact with your breast and the milk (flanges/breast shields, tubes, etc.)
  • Wash your hands before pumping or handling breast milk.

How long can breast milk be kept safely?

  • Room temperature: less than 6 hours.
  • In a cooler with ice packs: up to 24 hours.
  • In the refrigerator: up to 5 days, kept in the back of the refrigerator where it’s coldest.
  • In the freezer: up to 6 months.

The bottles: how, when, how much, how many…

  • It can be confusing to keep track of which bottles of milk should be used first. Label all your bottles of milk with the date they were pumped and use up your older milk first.
  • Keep enough milk in one bottle for one feeding. A good amount to start with is about 2 ounces. You can gauge how much your baby eats at each feeding and adjust from there. If your baby does not finish the amount in the bottle it’s okay to keep for another hour or so. Try to feed the milk again within that time frame, but don’t feed milk that’s been kept out any longer.
  • Start collecting breast milk 1-2 weeks before you return to work. Keep this milk in your freezer for emergencies. Do not fill the bottles to the brim if you plan to freeze them. Liquids expand when they’re frozen and you’ll end up with a leaky mess if you overfill your bottles!
  • Breast milk that you pump at work is best used to feed your baby on the next day, but breast milk can be kept in the refrigerator for up to 5 days.
  • You can add newly expressed milk to a container that already has milk. Just be sure you label the bottle with the date of the older milk!
  • Frozen milk can be thawed in the refrigerator (takes 24 hours) or under warm running water.
  • The correct way to thaw and heat up cold milk is with a hot water bath or a bottle warmer. A microwave is not recommended as it’s easy to end up with uneven heating and hot spots of scalding milk. High temperatures can also denature important proteins and antibodies which provide most of the benefits of breastfeeding!
  • Cream will rise to the top of the milk after cooling. Before you feed the milk you’ll want to swirl the bottle gently to redistribute the cream and to make sure the milk is evenly heated. Try not to shake the bottle too much as you’ll end up with lots of bubbles in the milk and one burpy baby!
  • Collection bottles are a convenient way to store a small amount of milk that you will use within a few days. A bottle lets you pump, refrigerate, and feed your baby just by changing the bottle cap and teat. On the other hand, if you plan to store a lot of breast milk, it is probably better to use breast milk collection bags as they can be stacked tightly in an organizer to take up very little room in your freezer and are guaranteed to be leak-proof.
  • If you find single-use collection bags to be too wasteful, another option is breastmilk freezer trays. They’re like ice cube trays that are perfectly sized to hold 1 oz. of breast milk in each slot. Just pour your expressed milk into each slot after pumping and you will have milk popsicles that you can just pop into a bottle and thaw.

How to increase milk supply.

  • Pump regularly. A schedule of about three hours between each 15 minute session is proven to promote a healthy supply. Pumping any less may lead to a decrease in milk.
  • During the first 6 months of your baby’s life your milk supply should stay steady. The amount your baby eats will adjust depending on her growth level (most rapid in the first 3 months, slower after the third month).
  • A normal amount of breast milk production ranges from 19 ounces to 30 ounces per day. This amount is less than what you would expect if you were feeding formula. Formula fed babies eat more because formula is harder to digest and they need to eat more to absorb the same amount of nutrients provided by breast milk.
  • Some herbs are known to increase milk supply. The most potent are fenugreek, blessed thistle, fennel, and stinging nettle. Fenugreek has a strong odor and bitter taste. The yummiest and most pain free way to take all of these herbs is with mother’s milk tea. It takes about 24-48 hours for the tea to have an effect on your milk supply.
  • Some mothers say that eating oatmeal helped them increase their milk supply. This one may be an old wives’ tale, but it couldn’t hurt to try!
  • Drink plenty of water! It’s easy for your milk supply to slow down if you’re dehydrated.
  • Some people swear that a bottle of beer at the end of the day increases their supply the next day. It’s probably due to the yeast in the beer so you could just eat nutritional yeastbrewer’s yeast,or vegemite instead. Do not drink alcoholic beverages 2-4 hours before you plan on nursing.
  • Medicines such as cold medicines containing pseudophedrine and birth control will affect milk production.

More information related to this topic:


Thanks for stopping by! Leave a comment if you have any questions.
I answer each and every comment left by my readers. 🙂

Hello there international friends!
The products in this post are sold in the USA by Amazon.com, but you can also find them:

in Canada on Amazon.ca

or if you’re in the UK/EU on Amazon.uk

That’s it and thank you for reading all the way to the end!

Thank you, if you have previously purchased something through one of my affiliate links! If you don’t have a need for any of the products mentioned in this post, you could simply do your regular shopping through any of the links on this site that lead to Amazon.com. You won’t pay any extra and I will receive a small commission.

Like what you’ve read?

Join our insiders list to get updates every week.