When and how to start pumping is probably the last thing on any expectant mother’s mind. There is so much to worry about when it comes to preparing for the tiny human that is about to take over your world that most of us never even consider the logistics of pumping breast milk for our babies–until it’s time to do so.
I will start by admitting that I always hoped to breastfeed my baby, but I didn’t have a good grasp on what level of commitment was required to do so. I had absolutely zero concept of supply and demand; I literally just thought–if your baby can latch, you can breastfeed, right?
I quickly learned that is so, so, SO far from reality. Breastfeeding requires an INSANE level of commitment, and there are many emotional ups and downs associated with it. From supply issues, to everyday middle of the night/early morning pumping sessions, to having to tell your [male] boss that you need to skip a meeting so you can pump, it’s simply not for the faint of heart.
Despite all of that, breastfeeding my baby–even with its many complications–is one of my favorite parts of being a mom. It’s time every single day that is reserved for only her and me. We have a groove–a routine–and there’s no sweeter moment than when your baby has a full belly and a contented smile.
Still, when it came time to start pumping, I realized that I had no idea whatsoever how to use the breast pump that my insurance had kindly paid for a few short months ago. I would have appreciated a “Pumping Breast Milk for Dummies” guide, if you will, and that’s what led me to today’s post.
Before we go any further though, I want to say that I genuinely believe every baby, every mom, and every situation is different. There is literally no wrong way to feed your baby. You do WHATEVER works for you and your family. If that’s exclusive formula feeding from birth, then that’s what it is and there is nothing wrong with that. As long as your baby is healthy and growing, nothing else matters.
Now, on to the good stuff…
Why to Pump
Short answer: to increase your milk supply and/or to allow your baby to drink breast milk from a bottle.
Long answer: There are all sorts of reasons why mothers need to pump breastmilk for their babies. If you’re lucky enough to stay home with your baby, then this may not be a huge concern for you right away but, most likely, there will come a time when you want or need someone else to feed your baby.
The other reason you may need to pump is to increase your milk supply and/or allow you to build a “reserve” in your freezer for emergencies.
When to Start
Short answer: 3 weeks post-partum
Long answer: Pediatricians recommend waiting until around 3 weeks to introduce your baby to a bottle. Some mothers are forced to start pumping right away for a multitude of different reasons. If you’re able to breastfeed your baby from the beginning, then you can consider pumping for the purpose of introducing your baby to a bottle at around 3 weeks postpartum. The reason for the 3 week mark is to avoid nipple confusion so, more specifically, you want to start once your baby is breastfeeding well and gaining weight before introducing the first bottle–otherwise it’s possible that they may start to refuse the breast and prefer to bottle-feed. Conversely, if you start too late–like several months after birth–it’s possible that your baby may refuse a bottle altogether.
In those early weeks, it’s also important that your baby [vice a machine] dictate the demand for your breastmilk–again, if that is possible in your situation. Your body will build a supply based on how much and how often your baby is feeding so, until you’re able to settle into a routine, it’s best to let the little one control the timing.
I started pumping just after Josie was 3 weeks old so that my husband could give her an evening bottle. At that point, she was consistently gaining weight and had no issues latching during breastfeeding (I specifically say latching because she had some reflux trouble–but that’s a separate issue).
How to Start
Short answer: if you’re introducing at 3 weeks, start by pumping every day one hour after the early morning feeding (around 2 or 3 a.m.)
Long answer: After nursing your baby, your breasts will need to “fill up” again. Most resources recommend waiting an hour after nursing to start pumping. (For example, if I fed Josie at 2 a.m., I would pump at 3 a.m. for about 10-15 minutes and finish at 3:15 a.m. Doing so would allow time for my breasts to “fill up” again after pumping to nurse Josie at 5 a.m.
Stimulation vs. Expression
Short answer: Run the stimulation setting for at least 2 minutes to initiate the let down, then switch to expression mode.
Long answer: Your pump is attempting to mimic the way your baby feeds. When your baby first latches, you’ll notice that they do a few quick sucking motions to initiate the milk “let down” (another thing I had no idea about when it came to breastfeeding). Each time you feed your baby, those initial sucks tell the nerves in your breasts that it’s time to release milk. When the let down occurs, you’ll feel a light pressure as the milk is released–this can take up to a few minutes. Once your milk lets down, it will start freely flowing. You’ll know that it happened because (1) you’ll feel the pressure as it does, and (2) your baby will start to take slower, deeper gulps.
All of that said, your pump has two modes: stimulation and expression. You will need to start in the stimulation mode to initiate the let down and, once that occurs, you can switch to expression mode for slower, longer suction. (Many pumps turn off after 25 or so minutes of continuous pumping. In the beginning, I only pumped for 10-15 minutes since she only ate 2-3 ounces per feeding. Now, at 4 months, I pump for the full 25 minutes each session since she’s eating about 6 ounces per feeding.)
What You Need to Get Started
Short answer: the “must-haves” are a breast pump, collection cups, ziploc bags, nursing bra, hand sanitizer, milk storage bags, cooler, ice packs, paper towels or nursing pads, permanent marker.
Long answer: If you’re going back to work like I was, do yourself a favor and buy the Freemie collection cups. With the standard breast pump collection system, you’ll have to totally remove your bra and either hold the flanges to your breasts, or change into a hands-free bra so that you can pump. With the collection cups, you can use your regular nursing bra which will save SO much time if you’re a working mom.
Once you pump, you can empty the collection cups into a milk storage bag, and then put them in a ziploc bag and into the refrigerator until your next pumping session; this will save you a ton of time, especially if–again–you’re pumping at work and time is money. At the end of the day, toss all of the parts in the dishwasher and you’ll be good to go again in the morning.
You’ll need to keep your expressed milk cold, so plan to have a cooler and ice packs that can withstand several hours. As a general rule: room temperature milk is good for 3 hours, refrigerated milk for 3 weeks, and frozen milk for 6 months to a year. Write the date in permanent marker on the bag and then “wash” your hands with hand sanitizer, if you can’t get to a sink right away.
Other Convenience Items to Have On Hand
- sterilization bags and/or wipes – Have these on hand for those times when you can’t get to a sink and/or microwave. There have been many mornings that I’ve forgotten to run the dishwasher the night before, so I just throw my parts into a bag, microwave for 3 minutes, and I’m good to go. The wipes are super handy for the times I’ve had to pump in the car or in a bathroom where no microwave was available. Check your insurance plan, these are often HSA-eligible.
- button up or wrap-style blouses – with the collection cups, you can pump in whatever you want, but it’s definitely easier (and faster) to just unbutton your blouse without having to lift your shirt all the way up. I still do a mix of both but if I know I’m going to have a busy day, I’ll just wear a button-up and be done with it.
- the Willow pump – I considered this pump for months before purchasing it. I finally decided to go for it when I was in a wedding and unable to take my baby for feedings. The thought of lugging around and being connected to my breast pump all day was too much. I do try to save it for only times it’s absolutely necessary because the bags are more expensive, but it’s been convenient to have for the times when you need to be able to do “life” while pumping.
If you’re ready to start pumping, my preferred items for getting started are listed below. You’ll know that the one common theme for all of these picks is convenience; this is a non-negotiable for working moms. I’ve linked everything at the bottom of this post, along with a short description of each item below. If you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to reach out!
01 Spectra S1 Pump // 02 Kiinde Milk Bags // 03 Freemie Collection Cups (make sure you get the right one for your pump!) // 04 Cooler and Ice Packs // 05 Paper Towels & Hand Sanitizer // 06 Ziploc Bags