Expressing breastmilk – essential guide

Expressing breastmilk is useful even if you're solely breastfeeding. It allows your partner to feed and bond and can help make you more comfortable. Here's our guide on how to express milk successfully and conveniently


Expressing breastmilk – why, how and what you need

Even women who breastfeed find there are times when they might want to bottle feed their baby. If you’re not sure where to start and which is the best type of expresser for you, check out our Buyer’s Guide to Breastpumps.


I am happy breastfeeding, why do I need to express?

Well, you absolutely don’t need to express your milk at all if you don’t want to. If you plan to solely breastfeed up to one year, when your child will start to drink regular, full-fat cow’s milk from a cup, you do not need to invest in bottles, steriliser etc. However, there may be reasons why you do 
want to use a bottle for at least some baby feeds

  • Allowing daddy to feed – Although dads can enjoy nappy changing, bathing and the endless walks around the house in the night to get your baby back off to sleep (!), there is nothing more amazing than feeding your baby. A first bottle feed by dad can be a wonderful experience for father and child.
  • To give you a rest – There are many natural benefits to breastfeeding which help the healing process, you may be tired or even become unwell, in which case you may need to sleep when your baby wants to feed. Enabling someone else to take over these duties for you, if only for one or two feeds, it really useful, and doesn’t mean you have to resort to formula milk if you don’t want to.
  • To give you a night out – With sleepless nights and busy days, it’s unlikely that many new parents will want to go out clubbing until dawn. However, time for yourselves, together, or with other adult company, is important not only so you and your child have a little more independence from each other, but also to help revive you as a person, to be a better mother day to day. 
  • To feed a premature baby – For babies who stay in hospital for some time, or who need to be fed in a different way from birth, it is still important to be able to give them your milk if at all possible.
  • To help with build up of milk – Especially in the early weeks, a baby’s feeding routines are all over the place. This can mean that a woman has more milk than her baby is demanding. It is a good idea to clear some of this (even if only by manually expressing some via massage). 
  • If you are on medication – If you need some important medication that is not advised during breastfeeding, building up a store of your own milk is a great way to keep the regime going. If you want to return to breastfeeding afterwards, you can continue to express the milk while you’re on medication, and throw it away, just to keep up your production of milk.
  • Going back to work – If you are breastfeeding but are returning to work, you may find that you need to get your baby used to drinking from a bottle long before you start to ease him on to formula milk. Expressing your own milk is a good transition as the milk will be familiar even if a bottle is a new experience for him.
  • Your baby has trouble latching on to you – Some women physically can’t produce enough milk for their babies. However, in other cases, whilst the milk is there, the baby’s usually instinctive ability to suck sufficiently might not be. You can bottle feed your baby with your own milk if this is the case, rather than resorting to formula milk.

When to start expressing

If you want to feed your newborn but he is being treated in hospital then you can start expressing straight away. For women who are breastfeeding regularly, where there is no immediate need for a bottle feed, it is a good idea to just concentrate on mother and baby feeding for the first six weeks or so, to enable your breasts to adjust to a more even level of demand from your child. If you introduce expressing sessions at the same time, you breasts might go into overdrive on days when your new baby has several major feeds!

If you do need to start expressing sooner than six weeks, this isn’t a major worry, but do make sure you don’t overdo it. (See below.)

Necessary equipment

As mentioned above, you will need to buy a:

  • breastpump
  • feeding bottles and teats
  • steriliser  

Not sure which ones to buy? Check out the latest reviews of all the best products for mums.
However, if you don’t think you’ll be using bottles and expressing a great deal, it’s worth looking at the different kinds of models, in our Buyer’s Guide to Sterilisers so that you’re not spending more money than you need to.

How to express- getting started

Like learning to play the trumpet, expressing may take a few false starts where little happens, before you start to get results. Don’t be downhearted. When I had my first child, I found nothing came out for about the first four sessions, when I used a manual pump, then I suddenly turned a corner and found I could express 15oz in one sitting! However, with my second child, after a couple of the most I could usually muster in one go was about 8oz even once I was back into the swing of things.

Make sure all your pump bits and pieces are sterilised, and make sure your hands are clean when you are doing this. Your nipples will be fine as feeding and the milk itself keep them naturally tickety-boo.

Expressing – time for yourself

You do need to allow yourself some time – it will take between about 20 minutes to an hour – so find a comfortable place to sit and have a drink or snack to hand.

Try if you can to do this while your baby is asleep or happily drooling to himself, so that he is not getting hungry watching you giving your precious milk up to this strange object!

Bear in mind that your baby will still want his milk so try not to express too soon after a feed, when you are still ‘refilling’, or too close to the next one. Boobs are amazing things, so they will adjust if you start to add an expressing session to your regime.

Try not to express too vigourously as you do not want to overwork your milk production. Expressing both breasts until they are empty is fine, but if they seem to dry up after just a couple of ounces, don’t fret too much.

Many women find that doing an expressing session in the morning (say at about 9am, if your first feed of the day was at 7am-ish), produces more milk because of the build up overnight.

Gently massage your boobs a little before you start to loosen up the milk ducts if they are feeling full.<p>
They all work in a similar way: you are using a gentle sucking motion to draw the milk out of your breasts. But follow the product manual for specific tips as they do all vary a little. (You can buy manual pumps or electric ones.)

Storing your milk

When you have finished expressing, you can store milk in the bottle of the breastpump (sealed with a sterilised ring and lid) in the fridge for up to 24 hours, if you are going to use it later. It can then be fed direct from that bottle, warmed gently first.

Longer term you need to store milk in the freezer, where it can be safely kept for up to three months.

Your pump will usually come with sterile bags to freeze your milk in. You can usually quite easily buy more bags from a good chemist. Empty the milk in by wrapping the mouth of the bag fully over the top of your bottle and then upturning the milk into it.

Even though bags might look like they take up to 8oz of milk, you will probably be better off emptying the milk into two bags of 4oz each, as the bag will be easier to seal if you leave more room. Also, the milk will expand a little when frozen.

Most bags seal with clips like the kind of plastic clips you use when sealing food bags. You can buy these or just use clean food bag clips, but make sure they shut fully and securely.

Life with baby is a muddle! Use stickers (many expressing kits come with quite a few to start you off) with the date you expressed on them to make sure you only use milk that has been stored for a maximum of three months. Don’t rely on your memory!

When you put them in the freezer, you might want to stand them up in a lunchbox or something, so they don’t get bashed about next to your peas and fish fingers!

Using the stored milk

To defrost, leave a frozen bag standing upright and still clipped shut, in a mug in the fridge for a few hours. 
You can buy a special frame to feed straight from the bag. However, this is quite a messy way of doing things and you’re just as well off emptying the contents of a bag into a sterile bottle for a feed.

For more information about how to thaw and use breast milk, check our guide to storing breast milk.

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