Hands-on pumping how-to

Hands-on pumping—massaging and squeezing your breasts as you pump—can help maximize your milk production by yielding more milk from a pumping session. Everyone puts their own spin on how to pump in this way; here’s the technique I teach, which I learned from my mentors (hat tip to you!).

1. Give your breasts a wake-up call with a little massage.

As Jessica Shortall would say, go to second base with yourself. Wake up the ladies! Massage your mammaries from your armpit to your areola. Do it light, do it rough, whatever gets your milk flowing and feels comfortable.

2. Pump both breasts at the same time, while squeezing.

Pretend you are a very fancy person sipping champagne and hold your pump flanges between your index and middle fingers. This allows your other fingers, especially your thumbs, the opportunity to massage your breasts. Turn on your pump and center your nipple in the flange as usual. Use the highest pain-free setting you can; you want to feel a pull, but not a pinch. Squeeze and massage, paying special attention to spots that are lumpy or full-feeling, and if you find a spot that squirts, keep providing pressure until it stops.

About hands-free pumping bras: People love hands-free pumping bras; I think they’re just another thing you have to remember to buy/bring/do/wash, and massaging your breasts through fabric just isn’t the same as skin-on-skin contact. Use them if they work for you, but it’s not a must-have. You may find one most helpful if you are exclusively pumping or your hands just can’t support the flanges and your breast.

3. Switch between breasts, pumping one at a time, and squeezing even more.

About halfway through your pumping session, switch to single pumping. Depending upon your pump, you may need to remove tubes and cover holes; this takes practice to go smoothly. This is the point where milk tends to spill, so be careful setting down your hard-won bottle of milk!

Now you can spend a minute at one breast and then the other, going back and forth several times and using both hands to massage and squeeze on each breast. Don’t just concentrate on the space near the areola, either; massage up further toward your armpit, on the inside and outside of your breast, and underneath.

4. End with hand expression for another dimension of stimulation.

Your baby’s mouth does not just provide a vacuum, which is what most breast pumps do. A baby’s tongue also stimulates the breast. Hand expression is a suitable approximation of this motion, and adding a few minutes of hand expression to the end of a pumping session can yield more milk with higher fat content and increase milk production overall. It can take practice to hand express well, and some people respond better than others; while even drops can make a difference, you might find that your time is better spent elsewhere (like eating lunch someplace other than your desk).

Don’t know how to hand express? Here’s a video that can help.

The amount you get is more important than how you get it

Sometimes double pumping isn’t more efficient, and single pumping yields more milk. For example, if you have large breasts, it may be difficult to both hold the flanges and massage, and doing single pumping with lots of massage may be more productive than double pumping with a little massage. Sometimes hand expression is more productive than anything else. Sometimes totally hands-free pumping yields plenty of milk. Figure out what works for you, rather than being beholden to a particular technique.

How long should you pump during a pumping session?

If you are trying to maintain your milk supply, such as when you’re pumping while you are at work, the volume of the milk you pump is more important than the length of time it takes to pump it. If it takes you 10 minutes to pump the amount of milk you need and ensure that your breasts are comfortable, you don’t need to pump for 20. When using the hands-on method described above, I suggest double pumping for half of your pumping time, and single pumping for the rest, adding on hand expression for a few minutes if that is productive for you. I consider 15 minutes of effective, efficient pumping time to be a good number to shoot for; it may take you less, but taking more might mean your pump or pumping technique could use tweaking.

If you are trying to build your milk supply, pumping past the point of having letdowns in order to provide extra stimulation can be beneficial, but pumping too long can also be stressful. When building a milk supply, frequent pumping is more likely to help than longer pumping sessions. If you are having concerns about the amount of milk you are producing, talk to an IBCLC or other lactation supporter, and for help tailored to your situation.

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