Whilst breastfeeding is the easiest go to fast food – after you’ve overcome the first few weeks, there are times that you may not be around to feed your baby yourself. This is where expressing breastmilk comes in handy – being able to draw off some milk for either someone else to feed your baby or storing up for another day. Expressing can even be a good skill to use to boost your supply if it’s low.
Another plus of expressing is that babies learn to take a bottle or a cup, allowing your partner or other members of your family to become more involved.
Choosing which method to use to express milk is dependent on different factors – why you are expressing, how often you’ll be doing it and how much you want to invest into products.
Top Tips for Expressing
Successful expressing has a lot to do with your emotions and how you are feeling. The hormone oxytocin causes the milk in your breasts to be released (let-down). Oxytocin is released when you feel happy and relaxed. Make a conscious effort to put your mind at ease and use your senses to help trigger milk release. Hold or sit near your baby, or look at a picture or video, listen to a sound recording or hold and smell an item of clothing. Relax your shoulders and take a deep breath to calm yourself before you begin. Try not to think about how much milk you are producing—instead, try distracting yourself by reading, listening to music or a relaxation CD, watching TV or even chatting on the phone.
Use your hands
When hand expressing, the skin-to-skin contact helps stimulate the let-down reflex. And your hands can remove milk from parts of your breast which the pump can’t. It’s also perfect for the first few days after birth when the small droplets of precious colostrum you make can be collected on a clean teaspoon.
Combine hand expression with pumping
This can help you remove milk more thoroughly than with pumping alone. Each time you express start with hand expression to stimulate a let-down.
Suction and cycling speed
When using a pump, set its suction strength so it feels comfortable. Aim for the lowest suction strength which effectively produces milk for you; higher settings can hurt and won’t necessarily produce more milk. Encourage multiple milk releases by mimicking a baby’s natural sucking pattern. Increase the cycling speed when milk flow slows and use a slower speed as flow increases again. Aim for at least 3–5 milk releases during the session.
How to hand express breastmilk
If you are pregnant or breastfeeding, expressing milk by hand is a useful technique to learn. It’s a handy way to relieve engorged breasts. You can also use it to stimulate milk production and provide milk for a baby who is not breastfeeding well or needs more milk.
Some find it easier to express milk by hand, especially in the first few days or weeks. It also means you can express without needing a pump, or an electricity supply.
Hand expressing also allows you to help encourage milk to flow from a particular part of the breast – which can be useful if your breasts are engorged or if you have a milk duct that has become blocked.
Expressing your milk by hand is a useful skill to have. It may take a bit of time and practice, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll find it’s very helpful. And the great thing is you only need your hands and a container – rather than a shop-bought breast pump.
How does it work?
Your milk reaches the nipple through many different ducts. So as you press and release the breast tissue, your fingers should ideally mimic the action of your baby’s tongue and mouth, squeezing milk from these ducts.
- Have something clean ready to collect the milk in – make sure it’s clean, sterilised and wide enough to catch the precious milk.
- You may find gently massaging your breasts before expressing helps the milk to let down. A warm flannel on your breasts before you start massaging can help too.
- Cup your breast with one hand then, with your other hand, form a “C” shape with your forefinger and thumb.
- Squeeze gently, keeping your finger and thumb a few centimetres away from your nipple, just outside the darker area around it (areola). Do not squeeze the nipple itself as you could make it sore. This should not hurt.
- Release the pressure, then repeat, building up a rhythm. Try not to slide your fingers over the skin.
- Drops should start to appear, and then your milk usually starts to flow.
- If no drops appear, try moving your finger and thumb slightly, but still avoid squeezing the darker area near your nipple.
- When the flow slows down, move your fingers round to a different section of your breast, and repeat.
- Express from one breast until the milk flow slows down and then start massaging the other. You can switch from breast to breast until the milk flow stops.
- At first you may not be able to produce much but usually the more you express the easier it becomes.
Watch a video about expressing milk by hand, on the UNICEF website.