Breast Pumping Basics 101

The Tot Lactation Expert, Rebecca Agi, of Best Milk LA shares essential tips on the basics of breast pumping

There are so many questions that new parents have about pumping – figuring out what kind of pump to get, when to start, how much and how long to pump… It can be totally overwhelming. Then there are the questions about breast milk storage and feeding. While the answers to these questions can totally vary and all depend on the individual needs and circumstances of each mother and baby, here is a broad overview to help you figure out the basics: when to start pumping, how often to do it, and how much of a milk reserve you need to keep on hand.

When to start pumping?

Believe it or not, it’s best to wait until 4-6 weeks postpartum to start pumping, unless of course you have breastfeeding issues that require you to pump before then, or if you have chosen to pump exclusively from the start. Waiting for the 4-6 week mark helps ensure that your milk supply has been fully established and meets the exact needs of your growing baby. If you’re getting ready to go back to school or work, you should start pumping 2-3 weeks before your return. This will give you enough time both to build a milk reserve in your freezer and to practice bottle-feeding with your breastfed baby. (Be sure to read Paced Bottle Feeding.)

Why wait so long?

A mother’s milk supply increases from delivery through six weeks and then stays pretty stable until the baby is six months old. By then, most mothers are producing 25-35 oz. per day.  Since milk removal is what drives milk production, the more you pump — in addition to breastfeeding  —  the more milk you’ll make. This can cause your body to make much more milk than your baby needs. This may sound like a good problem to have, but trust me it’s not. Breastfeeding with oversupply can cause constant engorgement, forceful letdown, plugged ducts, mastitis (ouch!), and a foremilk-hindmilk imbalance. Letting your baby determine your milk supply will get the two of you in sync so that you can then safely add pumping to your schedule.

How to add pumping to your schedule

If you want to build a milk stash in your freezer without going into overproduction, you can start by pumping after your first morning breastfeeding, when the breasts are typically at their fullest. You’ll have enough milk to feed your baby and then you can pump some extra. If you don’t produce much the first time, add this extra pump session every day at the same time and you’ll gradually increase your milk production in the morning, eventually getting a whole bottle’s worth of milk (about 3-4oz.) at one time.  You can store the milk you’ve pumped and use it later. Many moms are surprised how quickly they can build a freezer stash by pumping just once a day.

Tips for storing extra milk

According to the Academy of Breastfeeding Medicine, breast milk can be kept in the freezer for up to twelve months and in the refrigerator up to eight days. Here are some tips to keep in mind when storing extra milk:

  • Freeze in 2 oz. units. This gives you more control over how much you want to thaw and leads to less waste.
  • Label the pumped milk with the date and quantity. If you’re using breast milk storage bags, you can lay the bag flat in your freezer and then store the frozen bags upright in a container to save room.
  • Use the oldest milk first. Always put the freshest milk in the back of the container so that you reach for the oldest milk first.
  • Store milk in the back of the freezer. Never store breast milk on the door since as this is the warmest part of the freezer.
  • Thaw milk overnight in the refrigerator. If you need it sooner, you can place the frozen bag (tightly sealed) in a warm glass of water. Just make sure that no water ever mixes with the actual milk and never microwave breast milk. 

How much milk do I really need in my freezer?

If you’re getting ready to go back to school or work, you’ll need about two days’ worth of milk (50-60 oz.) stored in your freezer. As long as you continue pumping when you’re away from your tot, you’ll be ahead of the game and have a good backup supply if you ever need it. Of course there are exceptions and certain circumstances where you’ll need more than two days worth of milk stored in your freezer, so plan for 25-30 oz. for each day that you’re away from your baby.

Keep in mind that the amount of milk you pump is never a reliable indicator of how much milk you’re producing, and it can’t tell you how much milk your baby is getting. A healthy breastfed baby is almost always more efficient at drawing milk from the breast than a pump is.