Just bought a breast pump and have no idea what to do with it? Here’s a complete beginner’s guide to using a breast pump!
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Why Use a Breast Pump?
Breast pumps are designed to mimic, as much as a machine can, the sensation and suction of a nursing baby.
There are many reasons a parent might use a breast pump. Some of these include:
- To maintain supply and collect/provide milk for your baby when you’re separated
- To signal to your body that demand has increased, in the hopes that supply will increase in response
- To establish supply and collect/provide milk when baby is unable to nurse (for example, if baby is in the NICU) or the parent does not wish to nurse (as a result of past trauma or personal preference)
So, basically, the goal of your breast pump is to trick your body into thinking there is a baby trying to nurse, when nursing is not possible or desired.
(Don’t have a pump yet? Find out what pump you qualify for using your insurance here!)
How Does a Breast Pump Work?
Traditional breast pumps have three major components – pump parts, tubing, and the pump motor/face place.
Let’s talk about each of these in more detail.
(Note: This article does not cover wireless or hands-free breast pumps. More on these here.)
Pump parts include breast shields, valves, bottles, connectors, and backflow protectors. They attach to your breasts and pull the milk out using the power from the motor.
The tubing connects the pump parts to the pump motor.
The pump motor/faceplate provides the suction, and allows you to turn the pump on and off, adjust vacuum strength, and switch modes.
How to Use Your Breast Pump
Here’s everything you need to do when you’re ready to use your pump, step by step.
Before You Pump
Before you use your pump parts for the first time, they should be sterilized. (More details on how to do this here.)
Plug your pump in, or make sure it’s charged. I also suggest putting something in your lap to catch any drops or spills. (I used a baby blanket or nursing cover).
Using Your Pump
1. First, put together your breast pump parts. Usually, this means attaching the valve and breast shield to the connector, and then screwing the bottle on to the connector. If your pump has a backflow protector, you’d attach that to the connector, too.
I’m using a Motif Luna here, and your pump parts might look slightly different than this. Your pump might use a valve membrane instead of a duckbill, your pump might not have a backflow protector, your flange and connector might be separate, etc. This overview is just intended to give you an idea of where the different parts go, and what they do:
- Bottle – Collects the milk as you pump.
- Valve/Duckbill – Creates the suction that pulls milk from your breasts by stretching and releasing each time the pump motor pulls.
- Flange/Connector – Connects the pump to your breasts.
- Backflow Protector – Prevents milk/moisture from getting into the tubing.
2. Attach one end of the tubing to the connector, and make sure the other end of the tubing is attached to the pump motor.
3. Next, put the breast shields to your breasts. If you don’t have a hands-free pumping bra, I would recommend getting or making one so that you don’t have to hold your breast shields up for the entire pumping session.
4. Turn the pump on using the power button. You want to start in letdown mode (some pumps call it massage mode – more on breast pump settings here). You should feel quick, light suction. You may see drips of milk start to come out of your breasts.
5. Within a few minutes, you may feel your milk letdown. (This can feel like a pins-and-needles sensation for some women.) You might also see your milk start to spray. When this happens, you can switch your pump to expression mode.
6. Set the vacuum strength to the highest level that is comfortable for you. I would keep increasing the strength of the suction until you start to feel a bit of discomfort, and then dial back the suction one notch.
7. Continue pumping for about 15 minutes (or however long you’d like, but 15 minutes is a good length when you are first starting to pump).
After You Pump
When you’re done pumping, turn the pump off. Disconnect the tubing from the breast shield connector or backflow protector.
Then, take off your hands-free pumping bra and carefully put your pump parts and bottles down.
Unscrew the bottles from the pump parts, and store your milk. Your options are:
- Store it in the fridge
- Leave it out at room temperature if you plan to feed it in the next few hours
- Pour it into breast milk storage bags to freeze
Finally, put your pump parts in the wash basin to be washed. (More on how to properly wash your pump parts here.)
How Often and How Long Should You Pump?
This depends on why you’re pumping.
- If you’re exclusively pumping, see sample pumping schedules here.
- If you’re pumping because you’re separated from your baby, pump for 15-20 minutes, about as often as you would nurse.
- If you’re pumping to build up a freezer stash or increase supply, pump shortly after nursing (20-30 minutes or so) for about 15 minutes.
- If you’re triple feeding, pump for 15 minutes shortly after each nursing session.
Troubleshooting Common Pumping Issues
Here are some common pumping concerns, what can cause them, and what you can do.
Pumping should never hurt. If you’re having pain while pumping, check the following things:
- Breast shield size – Using breast shields that are either too small or too large can cause pain. If you’re having pain with pumping, you may need a different size. Figuring out what size is best can be a bit of a challenge – some people prefer buying several different sizes and seeing what is most comfortable, others measure their nipple with a ruler after pumping. (More on comfortable breast shields here.)
- Vacuum strength – As stated before, your pump speed should be set to the highest speed that is comfortable for you. Pumping at a speed that causes pain won’t get you more milk – it will inhibit letdown and cause soreness and possible damage to your nipples.
- Flanges centered – If your breast shields aren’t centered on your nipple, this can cause damage and pain. It’s a good idea to check this as you start pumping.
Suction Not Strong?
If you find that the suction doesn’t feel particularly strong when you’re pumping and not much milk is coming out (no matter how high you set the vacuum strength), try the following:
- Disassemble the pump parts and then reassemble them, and try again. Sometimes something can be slightly out of place.
- If your pump has backflow protectors, make sure that the diaphragms on them are properly positioned.
- Detach and reattach the tubing on both sides. (If you have a double pump and one side is not attached correctly, the suction won’t work for the other side, either.)
- Make sure the power source is securely plugged into the outlet and the pump.
- Try a different set of pump parts (preferably dry ones).
More on breast pump suction here. If none of this works, call your pump manufacturer’s customer service and see what they suggest.
Milk Getting In the Tubing?
If you have an open system pump (a pump without a backflow protector; many of the older Medela pumps are open system), it’s not uncommon for milk or moisture to get into the tubing. This isn’t a problem; you can just wash the tubing if this happens and hang it up to dry.
If you have a closed system pump (such as the Spectra, Motif, Baby Buddha, and many more), the backflow protector should prevent milk from getting into the tubing.
If for whatever reason moisture does get into the tubing, in many cases, the tubing will need to be replaced as it’s not possible to sterilize it. Check with your pump manufacturer to confirm.
Some pumps allow you to set the cycle speed as well as the vacuum strength. It’s a good idea to test out different speeds and see what works best for you – there is no one right speed for everyone.
Additionally, some women find that using massage mode the entire time they pump works best for them. It’s fine to do this – you want to use the settings that give you the most milk.
Test things out and see what works for you. The only real guideline I would stress is to use the maximum vacuum settings that don’t cause you any discomfort.
I hope this helps give you a complete beginner’s guide to using a breast pump! Let me know if you have any questions in the comments.