Hand expression vs pumping: how to master both techniques - Ruth Health

Hand expression vs pumping: how to master both techniques

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Fast facts:

  • There are two ways to remove milk from your breasts without nursing your baby: pumping and hand expression.
  • These techniques may feel very different from nursing. Like any skill, they take a little practice.
  • Hand expression doesn’t require any equipment or advanced planning, but it can be more time-consuming and may take more practice than pumping.
  • While pumping is often more efficient, it requires equipment and, in the case of electric pumps, access to an outlet or battery pack.
  • All breastfeeding individuals should know how to express milk by hand, as there are certain instances when manual expression is necessary.

If you’ve chosen to breastfeed, pumping and hand expression of breast milk are important skills to master. They allow you to feed your baby breast milk when you are apart and can also help alleviate the discomfort of breastfeeding challenges like engorgement and clogged milk ducts.

Using a breast pump or expressing milk by hand may feel very different from nursing your baby. Like any skill, they take a little practice. 

Here’s a quick primer to help you get started.

Hand expression vs pumping

Milk expression is the process of removing milk from your breasts, often to feed your baby at a later time. You can remove your milk by hand, which is called hand expression, or you can use a manual or electric pump.

There are benefits to both techniques:

  • Hand expression doesn’t require any advanced planning or equipment beyond a clean container or bag for milk storage However, it can be more time-consuming and may take more practice than pumping.
  • Pumping is typically considered more efficient but requires equipment and, in the case of electric pumps, access to an outlet or battery pack.

While you should feel empowered to use whatever process you find most convenient, all breastfeeding individuals should know how to express milk by hand.

There are certain instances when hand expression is necessary, for example if your pump stops working or your breasts become engorged and you don’t have a pump on hand.

A step-by-step guide to hand expression

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  2. Get comfortable and try to stimulate the flow of milk. Try placing a warm cloth on your breasts, or gently massaging your breasts. Many people find it helpful to think of their baby. Some look at their baby’s photo or have a clothing article on hand.
  3. Place your hand in the shape of a “c” with your thumb on the top of your breast and your other fingers beneath your breast.
  4. Use your other hand to place a collection cup or storage bottle beneath your breast. Your nipple should be directly above the cup or bottle.
  5. Use your thumb and fingers to gently push your breast toward your body.
  6. Bring your thumb and fingers together and move your hand forward, using a gentle rolling motion to remove milk from the milk ducts. Avoid putting too much pressure on your breast.
  7. Lean forward so that milk falls from your nipple into your collection container. The milk should not touch your hands before passing into the container.
  8. Continue the rhythm of moving your hand backward and forward in a rolling motion and then letting milk fall into the container until the flow of milk stops. Then switch breasts. If you are expressing your milk to relieve the soreness of engorgement, you can stop when your breasts feel less full.

A step-by-step guide to hand expression

  1. Wash your hands with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Make sure your breast pump parts and bottles are clean.
  2. Get comfortable and try to stimulate the flow of milk using the suggestions above. Some electric pumps use technology that mimics a baby’s feeding to help with this too.
  3. Following your pump manufacturer’s instructions, begin to pump your breast at a low suction, letting the milk fall into a bottle or bag. Gradually work up to a higher but still comfortable suction. There are double pumps that allow you to pump both breasts at the same time.

In both cases, you can feed your baby expressed milk right away or store it for later use using safe storage guidelines.

How do I store expressed breast milk?

Expressed milk can be stored at room temperature or in the refrigerator or freezer using a glass container, a BPA-free clear plastic container, or breast milk storage bags.

Here are some tips to ensure safe and efficient storage:

  • If storing your breast milk in a container, make sure the lid fits tight.
  • Label your breast milk and include the date it was expressed.
  • If storing your breast milk in the refrigerator, place it in the back, where temperature is most consistent.
  • Store frozen breast milk in smaller quantities to avoid waste.

When is the best time to pump or express breast milk?

It depends on your reason for pumping or expressing milk. If you are storing milk to feed your baby at a later time, pump or manually express your milk after nursing your baby and when your baby is asleep.

While you are away from your baby, pump or express milk at the times you would feed your baby to avoid issues with milk production and supply.

You can also use these techniques as needed to alleviate the fullness of engorgement or clogged milk ducts.

Does pumping or hand expression hurt?

Pumping or expressing milk by hand should never be a painful experience. If you are experiencing discomfort, a lactation consultant can offer suggestions and help you find the best approach.

In addition, make sure that you’re using a well fitting breast shield, which is a funnel-shaped piece that fits over your breast. The shield should completely surround your nipple, but with enough space to avoid rubbing against your skin.

Check with a lactation consultant if you’re concerned about the size of your breast shield.

Lactation support from Ruth Health

Ruth Health offers nearly 24/7 virtual lactation support from Certified Lactation Counselors (CLCs) to provide individualized care throughout your breastfeeding journey.

Learn how we can help you navigate the many stages of breastfeeding, and sign up below to join our community.

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