Breastfeeding FAQs: Pumping

Whether you're a new mom or a seasoned parenting pro, breastfeeding often comes with its fair share of questions. Here are answers to some common queries that mothers — new and veteran — may have.

When can I start pumping my breast milk?

Some women who breastfeed start pumping soon after their baby is born to build up their milk supply if they’re not producing enough milk. This also can be helpful if a mom wants to store milk in the freezer for when she returns to work.

But it's a good idea to wait to introduce a bottle to your baby. Some experts feel that pumping and giving bottles too early — before a baby is used to breastfeeding — might cause "nipple confusion," leading a baby to decide that the bottle is the quicker, better option than the breast. While some babies have this confusion, others have no problem moving between a bottle and the breast.

If you're returning to work after maternity leave, try to start pumping a couple of weeks beforehand. If you wait until the day before you go back to work, you may be frustrated to find that your body doesn't respond to the pump, which isn't nearly as cute and cuddly as your baby. In fact, it may take some practice and patience before you're able to produce enough milk without your baby's help. It also may take time for your baby to get used to taking a bottle.

Depending on how heavy their milk flow is, some women can fill a bottle in one pumping session, while others may need to pump two or three times (and sometimes more) to get a full bottle.

Though pumping might be frustrating at first, it can help you get some much-needed rest and let your partner and other family members bond with and feed the baby. It also allows you to continue to provide breast milk for your baby when you return to work or are away.

What type of pump is best?

You can buy or rent a breast pump from lactation consultants, hospitals, retail stores, and online. A lactation consultant will give you detailed instructions and be there for you if you have difficulty.

Which kind of breast pump to use is up to you. Here's what's available:

  • Manual pumps. Manual (or hand-operated) pumps are smaller than electric pumps and more discreet. They are cheaper than electric pumps (manuals are usually under $50, whereas electric models can cost hundreds of dollars). A manual pump is fine for occasional pumping, but usually not for returning to work because many moms find that the effort required for manual pumps is too much and it takes too long to draw out milk.
  • Electric pumps. Despite their expense, electric (or automatic) pumps can be easier to use than manual ones because they don't require much physical effort. And many models let you pump both breasts at once, which is a real time-saver and may increase your milk supply.

    Some women find the noise of the electric pumps to be a little much (especially if you're pumping at work or away from home). And though they often come in easy-to-carry bags (such as backpacks or arm bags), the weight and bulk can be a bit cumbersome.

    Also keep in mind where you might be using the pump. Some electric pumps can be plugged in or battery-operated; others can't. So, unless you want to have to find a comfortable spot and an electrical outlet every time, you might want one that offers both options. It's also important to consider a back-up method, such as a battery-operated or manual pump, in case of a power outage.

Find out which type of pump (if any) your insurance will help pay for. If you don't have the money to buy a pump or don't receive one as a gift, contact the governmental organization Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) to find out about their pump program and to see if you qualify.

Are used pumps OK?

Doctors, lactation consultants, and pump manufacturers will tell you that it's not a good idea to borrow or buy someone else's used pump. This is because bacteria and viruses from the previous owner can get trapped inside the pump. They are potentially hazardous to your baby's health, even with thorough and repeated sterilization and cleaning.

Some pumps, though, are designed to decrease the risk of contamination between users and are meant for multiple users, each with their own accessory kit.

How can I make pumping easier?

As with nursing, it's important to be comfortable when pumping (which doesn't always seem possible while you're attached to a machine). It can be hard, especially at first, for your body (and your mind) to get used to producing milk without your baby's help.

Often, women's milk will "let down" (or start to be released) when they see or hear their babies cry. So, when faced with an object instead of the welcoming face of your little one, you may find it hard to pump.

If you're having trouble with let-down, it could be helpful to hold something that reminds you of your baby or has your baby's scent, like a picture, video on your phone, blanket, or piece of clothing. Your let-down also can be affected if you're frustrated, embarrassed, or rushed. Try relaxing in a comfortable chair or couch and don't stress out too much about producing enough milk.

If your breast just doesn't seem to fit the pump correctly, the pump may come with different sized flanges or you can buy a smaller or larger flange to place over your breast. (The flange is the plastic cup that goes over the nipple and areola when you pump.)

Also, just like when you're nursing, it's important to place the breast shield of the pump correctly over your breast, covering your nipple and areola (not just the tip of your nipple), and getting a good seal. If you place the pump incorrectly, it can be uncomfortable and you'll be much less likely to get the milk you need. And if you're using an electric breast pump, make sure to adjust the speed and suction to the level that's comfortable for you to help prevent unnecessary discomfort.

Where can I pump at work?

If you're pumping at work, try to find a discreet and comfortable place to do it.

Many companies offer their employees pumping and nursing areas. If yours doesn't, ask your supervisor or the human resources department about an office or other private area that might be suitable. Employers are required by law to provide an appropriate area (that's not a bathroom) for employees to pump breast milk and reasonable time to do so.

As a last resort, if you have to pump in a bathroom, find a large one with a comfortable chair and some type of privacy barrier.

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: February 2015