How are you supposed to know when to start pumping? Does this baby come with an instruction manual? Was there an email that you missed?
Don’t worry, mama. Nobody is born with in-built pumping intel. You’re by no means the first person to ponder these questions.
As it turns out, the breast pump as we know it today has only been in circulation for about 20 years. It’s awesome, yes, because it allows mamas some degree of agency. Going back to work, sharing feeding duties with your partner or a family member, having a night out, not having to feed straight from the breast every time—the breast pump opens up a world where all of this is possible.
But, like everything to do with being a mama, it’s complex.
“The quiet revolution” is the term used to describe the explosion of the breast pump onto the feeding scene. And it’s not hard to see why. Over 85% of new mamas are incorporating milk expression into their feeding schedule in some capacity—and the pump is a massive part of that trend. It really is changing the way we feed our babies.
It’s the “quiet” part of the “quiet revolution” that’s worth a second glance. We just don’t have the data we need to know exactly what the risks and challenges of breast pumping are.
So, let’s normalize the conversation, shall we? Bring the pump out into the light. That way, we can make this whole thing a lot easier and safer for everyone. There’s simply no reason that the revolution should be quiet.
First item on the agenda: when to start breast pumping.
When should I start pumping?
When can I start pumping if I’m breastfeeding?
When to start pumping breast milk is a difficult one because no two situations are alike.
As a very rough guideline, it’s a good idea to wait until your baby is about six weeks old before you start pumping. There are a few reasons to wait:
You and your baby will have a chance to get into your feeding groove. Like figuring out anything new with a partner, you and your baby are just learning how to do this thing.
Breastfeeding improves milk production. Kangaroo care (essentially skin-on-skin contact whenever possible) briefs your body to make milk for your baby. That mama-baby bond is strong. Babies perform a very specific sucking action when breastfeeding that stimulates the breastfeeding hormone prolactin—and this increases your milk supply.
BUT (and it’s a big one):
All situations are different and yours may mean that you need to pump sooner. Here are some situations where this might be the case:
- Your baby was born prematurely and/or is sick. If your baby needs to go into the NICU, breast pumping early on may be a good idea.
- Your baby has a low birth weight. If you need to supplement breastfeeding to get your baby’s weight up, the pump is incredibly handy.
- You need to go back to work. If you need to go back to work, you may need to pump sooner. It’s a good idea to start pumping about three weeks before going back so that you have enough supply built up when the time comes.
- You’re separated from your baby for whatever reason. Life happens. And when it does, pumping can be a godsend.
Pumping while you’re still pregnant is not recommended as it might confuse your hormones and send you into labor prematurely.
When should I pump to build supply?
Breast milk works on something of a supply and demand basis. If you let those ducts know that there’s demand, supply typically follows.
A general rule of thumb is to pump as often as you would feed. This helps send the right signals to your body about how much milk is needed.
Very roughly, this works out in the region of about every three hours.
When you do this is ultimately up to you and your schedule—the whole point is making this thing work for you.
Hot tip? Morning pumps can be quite productive. That’s because that prolactin hormone (the breastfeeding one) is stimulated overnight. So, in the morning, your body is ready for the day ahead.
How do you start pumping while breastfeeding?
So then there’s the how—and, no, it’s not abnormal that you don’t know how to attach a juice-sucking contraption to your breast.
The good news is, you can start slow. Before you even get to the pump, try to get your milk out by hand (called hand expressing). From there, you can gradually start replacing one of your daily feeds with a pump and introducing the bottle to your baby so that they get used to the whole idea.
Some mamas also find it useful to use the pump straight after breastfeeding. The reasons for this are twofold—it can help prevent milk build-up that can lead to mastitis, and it can stimulate milk supply.
From there you can ramp up to regular pumping. If you’re going back to work, it’s a good idea to start your pumping journey about two or three weeks beforehand. This will help you build up your supply and alleviate at least some of the stress that comes with the transition.
There are various pumps on the market—loosely divided into manual, battery-operated, and electric. Some electric versions are double pumps, allowing you to do two breasts at a time.
If you start pumping before your baby is six weeks old, go for a manual over an electric pump so your body doesn’t go into oversupply mode. Oversupply can be quite uncomfortable. (You might have heard the word “engorgement”? Yes, that’s it.) Your breast can get leaky and infected and leave you feeling more than a little over it all.
The different pump types come with their own unique instruction sets, but as a rough guide:
Tips on how to pump for the first time
- Wash your hands. Get your supplies. Have a clean bottle at the ready. (Go here for tips on how to sterilize your bottles.)
- Place the opening of the flange (that’s the lips of the pump) around your nipple.
- Hold the pump in place. One method is to keep your thumb on top and the rest of your fingers below the nipple.
- Then, it’s up to the pump type. The instructions should take you through the various settings and options for your pump. Pump for about 15 minutes on each side.
- Keep the bottle cold and covered to avoid contamination.
- Clean your pump.
Important PSA: Pumping shouldn’t be painful. If it is, it may be because the pump is not the right size or on the right setting.
If you’re feeling at all uncertain during your breastfeeding journey, reach out to your healthcare practitioner. Lactation specialists exist for this exact reason and can help you find a path through this that works for you and your baby.
The breast pump journey can be a lonely one. Having a community of other mamas around you as you navigate all of this is awesome. They’re there for you on Peanut.
Okay, mama. You got this. Good luck.