11 FAQs about expressing your breast milk

Reading time: 5 min

As with any part of becoming a parent, learning how to breastfeed and express your breast milk takes time and patience. If you have both, it will just be a matter of time before you are milking like a pro!

Q. What is expressing?

Expressing is quite simply how you remove milk from your breasts, either by hand (yes, that can be done!) or using a breast pump. And yes, it can make you feel like a dairy cow, but it means that your milk can then be given to your baby in a baby bottle (or even a cup), so that they continue to get all the goodness of breast milk even if you can’t feed them yourself from the breast.

Q. Why would I express my milk?

You may choose to express for all sorts of reasons, including:

  • To build up a store of milk for when you return to work or aren’t with your baby.
  • To relieve engorged breasts (they can get very full).
  • To stimulate extra milk production through your breasts.
  • To give your partner the opportunity to get involved with feeding.
  • And our favourite, to give you the chance to take time out or get some rest

Q. How do I start expressing my breast milk?

It may take you a while to get the hang of expressing, but that’s okay. It takes a bit of practice but being relaxed is important to help your milk let-down reflex. Therefore, try to relax, take your time and be prepared for a few false starts.

“Ever wondered why people squirt milk on their wrists to test the temperature? The skin here is thin and sensitive, just like your baby’s, so this serves as a reliable guide. It should feel warm not hot.”

Q. Do you have any expressing tips for me before I begin?

Ahead of expressing, you should:

  • Sterilise all parts of your breast pump before each use.
  • Assemble the pump according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  • Breast milk storage should take place in a sterile container. Pre-sterilised pouches are great, as you can express directly into them and then just pop them in the fridge or freezer – no decanting, no mess, no waste.

Q. How do I start expressing my milk?

You can choose to express breast milk with a breast pump or express it by hand. Whichever you choose, there are a few things you can do to help make it easier:

  • Find a comfortable and quiet place and think about what will make you relaxed. Some music might help.
  • Gather everything you need. A sterilised breast pump and container, a drink, snack, your phone, TV remote and something to help you focus on your baby (perhaps a photo or video or even their blanket).
  • Make sure you’ve washed your hands and then get comfortable.
  • You are trying to emulate the sensation of your baby nuzzling in to feed, so gently massage your breast, including the nipple area, to stimulate the breastfeeding hormones.
  • At this point, you should be ready to start expressing.
mom-expressing-breast-milk
Image supplied by Tommee Tippee

Q. What other advice do you have for expressing breast milk?

When expressing breast milk, start by making sure your breast is fully in the horn of the breast pump. You need to create a seal to get things working efficiently.

If you’re using an electric pump, begin slowly at first while ensuring that the pump is in the correct position and comfortable. You should see the milk dropping into the container. If there’s no milk there, try adjusting the pump on your breast to create a better seal.

While you are expressing, simply use one hand to massage your breast from the armpits towards the nipple.

Be sure to express until the milk flow stops on each breast. How long this will take can differ from mom to mom and even day to day. Don’t worry if you only get a little milk though, as everyone is different and it will get easier.

If you’re having problems expressing breast milk, you might like to try something called a breast compression while you’re expressing. It will help to stimulate additional let-downs and thoroughly drain the milk ducts.

After expressing breast milk from one breast, repeat the cycle again on the other breast.

Q. How can I express by hand?

To express breast milk by hand, cup your breast with the palm of your hand and place your thumb just above your nipple. Compress and release the nipple until the milk begins to flow. Continue until the milk flow stops on the breast and then repeat the cycle again on the other breast. Once you have completed the cycle on both breasts, store your breast milk in a sterile container.

It can feel a little odd expressing breast milk by hand, as well as taking a while to get the hang of the technique, so don’t worry if it takes a few attempts.

Q. When should I start expressing breast milk?

In theory, you can start collecting milk any time. In practice, though, most healthcare professionals recommend that you establish your breastfeeding routine first before using a breast pump.

If you’re uncomfortable with a very full feeling in your breasts in the first few weeks after your baby is born, you may want to relieve engorgement with an occasional expressing session. This should only be a short session though, simply serving to give you relief.

If you imagine expressing is like placing an order with the milkman, each time you do it you’re telling your body that it needs to deliver the same amount of milk again tomorrow. Placing too many orders in the early weeks will just make your body think you need more milk than your baby requires and you’ll end up with a huge supply. Easy does it.

Once you’re ready to start expressing, try to express at the same time of day and after a feed. The time of day you choose really depends on the reason behind you expressing breast milk (e.g. for when you return to work, for the night-time feed when dad can take over, or if you want to boost milk supply)

Q. How can my husband get involved with breastfeeding?

Let him take over the late night or early morning feeds with stored milk. Giving them milk that you have expressed in the evening is perfect, as it contains all those lovely sleep-inducing hormones. It’s worth noting on the container when it’s night-time milk.

Q. How often should I express breast milk?

The most productive time to express is the morning because your milk-producing hormones have been doing their stuff at night. Each time you express you are tricking your body into thinking that your baby has really taken that 10am feed.

Even if you express and no milk comes out at all, you’re ‘placing the order’ for milk to be made later. You might feel daunted about the prospect of finding the time to express. If you’re going back to work or simply want to get help feeding, find a routine that works for you.

When you’re expressing at home to build up your supply and a stash of milk, once a day is plenty. Once you go back to work, standard practice is to express once for each missed feed. This is probably about three expressing sessions in a typical eight-hour work day.

It can seem like a lot, especially when you’re trying to get a job done too. As a result, if you really can’t fit them all in then come up with a plan that works for you. For example, express when you get up, before work, after your baby goes to bed or during the night.

Q. Can I heat breast milk that has been expressed?

Yes, you can. When babies take milk from the breast, it’s at blood temperature so milk doesn’t have to be warmed for babies to like it – room temperature is fine, too. But if you choose to warm the milk, here is how:

  • Place the bottle in a bowl of warm water and once it is warmed to room temperature, shake to ensure an even temperature throughout. Warming for too long can cause bacteria to develop, so under 15 minutes is ideal.
  • If you are out and about, you may want to consider a bottle warmer that can fit neatly in your changing bag.
  • Never heat breast milk in a microwave or boil it. This will destroy all the good stuff and you are also at risk of burning your baby’s mouth, as it can create hot spots.

Real moms share their thoughts

Here’s what some of the moms on Facebook have to say on the subject so that you’re prepared for something similar:

“I had no concept of what expressing would look like. I was pretty horrified when I bought a pump, tried it and saw my nipple and breast being milked like a dairy cow.”

“If my breast were really full and I went in the shower, the hot water seemed to have the same effect and it was like I had two milk firehoses.”

 “You have to laugh – the noise of the pump is dreadful and as for the sight of your nipple being sucked into it…”

“I’d stacked a pile of files on my desk and thought I could express in my office, but sure enough I flashed a colleague more than I wanted.”

“Don’t cry over spilt milk, unless it’s breast milk … then sob.”

“The number of times I leaked milk all over my top because I thought I’d just wait another five minutes to express!”

“I challenge anyone to look down when expressing and not think of a cow!”

“Being up at 3am expressing while the baby sleeps through feels so wrong.”

Download our free Guide to Expressing by Tommee Tippee here.