Expressing and storing milk

Expressing milk means extracting milk out of your breasts so you can store it and feed it to your baby at a later time. You can express milk by hand or with a pump (electric or manual), whichever is more comfortable for you.

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After you've expressed your milk, you can either give it your baby straight away, or store it in the fridge or freezer.

Why express breast milk?

There are various reasons why you may want to express milk, such as:

  • if your baby is premature or has problems after birth, they may need to spend some time in the special baby care unit. You may not be able to feed them yourself, but they can still have your expressed breast milk

  • if you are returning to work or study, someone else can give them your breast milk

  • if your breasts feel uncomfortably full (engorged), expressing will help relieve this

  • if your baby isn't able to suck well, but you still want them to have your breast milk

  • expressing is a good way to boost your milk supply

  • when you start weaning your baby, you may want to include some breast milk

If you don't need to express your milk straight away, it's best to wait until you and your baby feel happy and confident with breastfeeding before you start expressing milk regularly.

Expressing breast milk by hand

Expressing your milk by hand is a useful skill to have. It may take a bit of time and practice, but once you've mastered it, you'll find it's very helpful. And the great thing is you only need your hands and a container - rather than a shop-bought breast pump.

Hand expression can be useful in various situations, for example if your baby isn't feeding or latching on well, if you want to stimulate your milk production, or if your breasts become engorged (this is a good way to relieve them).

How do I hand express breast milk?

Before you start, make sure you wash your hands really well. You'll also need a sterilised container – this could be a feeding bottle or a wide jug or bowl.

Tip: The more relaxed you are, the better your milk will flow. So try to make sure you are as comfortable, warm and relaxed as possible. Sometimes it helps to have your baby, or even a photo of your baby, close by. See tips for expressing milk.

  1. Get comfy - preferably in a warm, quiet room where you can relax undisturbed. Place the container within easy reach.

  2. It can be helpful to start by gently massaging your breasts (make sure your hands are warm). Start off with long strokes from your armpit, working towards your nipple.

  3. Next, cup your breast in a C-shape near the outside area of your nipple (but not on it). Your finger and thumb should be opposite each other – if you imagine that your breast is a clock, your thumb would be at 12 o'clock and your finger at 6 o'clock.

  4. Start by feeling for a change in breast texture, you're looking for something that feels like a ridge, away from the softness of your nipple. This is where you need to start gently squeezing, or compressing your breast.

  5. It may take a few minutes so be patient! Gradually your breast milk (or colostrum) will start to slowly drip out. Keep going, try to build up a rhythm – you're doing really well!

  6. When you notice your milk flow slowing down, move your hands around your breast so you are expressing from a different area (position your finger and thumb at 11 o'clock and 5 o'clock) and repeat the process.

  7. Once you've expressed as much as you can from one breast, repeat the process on your other breast. Then move back to the first breast – you may be surprised at how much milk you can express.

Expressing breast milk with a pump

Remember; try to express when you're calm and relaxed. If there's a warm, quiet room at home, somewhere away from the hustle and bustle of family life, this is the ideal place to express your milk.

Make sure your pump and all the parts (bottles, valves, funnel etc) are clean and sterile before using them. If your baby in hospital because they are ill or premature, your midwife will help you with cleaning and sterilizing the equipment.

Breast pumps are designed to mimic your baby's sucking action. There are two different types: electric and manual. With the manual type, you squeeze the plunger by hand, while the electric version does the work for you. Have a good read of the instructions and familiarise yourself with your pump before using it.

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Manual breast pumps

If you're expressing with a manual breast pump, it'll take a bit longer than if you're using an electric pump. The good thing about manual breast pumps is that they are cheaper, simple-to-use, lightweight, and quiet.

  1. Wash your hands. And make sure your pump, the bottle and the parts are clean and sterile before use.

  2. Get comfy and relaxed - preferably in a warm, quiet room where you can relax undisturbed.

  3. Start by massaging your breast for a few minutes – this helps with the let-down reflex. It also helps to have a photo, or video clips of your baby to look at.

  4. Place the breast shield or funnel over your nipple, and slowly start to pump. It may take a few minutes before your milk starts flowing.

  5. Switch breasts when your milk starts slowing down. Then swap back again as you may find you have more milk to express.

  6. You may find that one breast produces more milk than the other – this is completely normal.

  7. Once you've emptied both breasts, remove the breast shield, and put a lid (make sure it's screwed on properly) on the bottle. You can either refrigerate it straight away, or leave it out at room temperature for no more than 4-6 hours. See storing milk for more info.

  8. Wash and sterilise the pump and all the parts.

Electric breast pumps

If you are using an electric breast pump, it's best to start slowly with the suction on the lowest setting. The advantage of using an electric breast pump is that it does the work for you, and it takes less time than using a manual breast pump.

  1. Wash your hands. And make sure your pump, the bottle and the parts are clean and sterile before use.

  2. Get comfy and relaxed - preferably in a warm, quiet room where you can relax undisturbed.

  3. Start by massaging your breast for a few minutes – this helps with the let-down reflex. It also helps to have a photo, or video clips of your baby to look at.

  4. Place the breast shield or funnel over your nipple, and switch the machine on. Start with a slow speed – or one that is comfortable for you. It may take a few minutes before your milk starts flowing.

  5. Once your milk has started flowing, you can change the setting so it increases the speed.

  6. Switch breasts when your milk starts slowing down. Then swap back again as you may find you have more milk to express.

  7. You may find that one breast produces more milk than the other – this is completely normal.

  8. Once you've emptied both breasts, remove the breast shield, and put a lid (make sure it's screwed on properly) on the bottle. You can either refrigerate it straight away, or leave it out at room temperature for no more than 4-6 hours. See storing milk for more info.

  9. Wash and sterilise the pump and all the parts.

How to store breast milk

Store breast milk in a sterilised container, or special breast milk storage bags – remember to label and date it. Your milk can then be kept in the:

  • fridge, at the back and not the door, for up to 5 days (at 4°C or lower)

  • ice compartment of the fridge for up to 2 weeks

  • freezer for up to 6 months

Tip: Store your milk in small quantities to avoid waste.

The best way to defrost frozen breast milk is by leaving it in the fridge to thaw out completely. But if you need it straightaway, you can defrost it by placing the bag or container in a jug of warm water, or by holding it under running warm water. Whichever way you defrost the milk, it must be used immediately (never re-freeze it).

Warming breast milk

Your baby may be perfectly happy to drink the milk cold, but if not, you can warm it (up to body temperature) under warm running water, or by sitting it in a jug of warm water. Make sure to use the milk within an hour, anything left over should be discarded.

Microwaves are not suitable for warming or defrosting milk, they can cause hot spots which can burn your baby's mouth.

Feeding your baby expressed milk

You can feed your baby with your expressed milk in a bottle, syringe, spoon, or special feeding cup. If you are feeding your newborn in hospital, your midwife will be able to give you some help and guidance. And if you're at home, your health visitor will be able to help.

Tips for expressing milk

Get comfortable

When it comes to expressing, being relaxed and comfortable is the key. Ideally you'll be able to express your breast milk in a warm, quiet room away from any noise or distraction. But this isn't always possible - you may be at work or out and about in a public place. If you're away from home, try to plan ahead and be close to a private, lockable room when you need to express.

Don't rush yourself

When you're feeling rushed, it's harder to get your milk to flow. Set aside enough time so that you don't feel pressured. You may find that there's a certain time of day you prefer to express your milk – it's all about figuring out what works best for you. Everyone's different, but when you first start expressing, try to allow at least 30-45 minutes per session. Once you've got the hang of it, it'll probably take you around 15-20 minutes to empty both breasts.

Relax (as much as possible)

Some mums find sitting near their baby, looking at a photo or video clip, or holding an item of their clothing (so you can smell them) helps with relaxation, which then helps with milk flow. It's also a lovely reminder of why you're expressing and how beneficial your breast milk is.

If your baby is poorly and in hospital, it's not easy to relax. If possible, try not to worry about how much breast milk you're producing – it may help to distract yourself by reading a book, listening to music or watching TV.

Further help

For more information on expressing breast milk, you can watch these videos:

Expressing milk if your baby is premature

Your breast milk is packed with goodness, and is especially valuable if your baby is premature (as they are even more vulnerable to infection). Breast milk is easier to digest than formula, contains vital antibodies to protect your baby from infections, as well as nutrients to help with growth and development.

If your baby is too small or poorly to breast feed, it's important to start hand expressing as soon as you can. You'll need to aim to express between 8-12 times within 24 hours (including once at night).

Your midwife and the hospital staff will be able to guide and support you (and there may be a lactation specialist onsite). Once your milk is flowing, you could start using a hand or electric breast pump if you prefer.

In the beginning, you may only manage to get a few drops out, don't be discouraged - these drops are extremely valuable to your baby. This can be a very stressful time – but keep going, and be patient with yourself.

Click here for more information on feeding your premature baby.