You may want to express milk, if:
- your baby is in the neonatal unit and cannot breastfeed
- you are going to be apart from your baby, for example, if you are going back to work
- your breasts are full (engorged)
- you are struggling to breastfeed, but still want to give your baby breast milk
- you want to share feeding with a partner
- you want to boost your milk supply.
If you can, it is best to wait until your baby is a little older before regularly expressing milk, so you both have a chance to get used to breastfeeding. It can take around 6 to 8 weeks to get breastfeeding established (working well).
Can I express breast milk if my baby is premature?
If your baby is too small or too sick to breastfeed, you will need to express often to get your milk supply going. This will help you to start breastfeeding when you and your baby are both ready. Try to express at least 8 times a day to begin with, including once at night, to keep up your supply.
How do I express breast milk?
You can express milk by hand or with a breast pump. In the first couple of days after you have given birth, you may find it easiest to hand express before your milk comes in. It is a gentle way to start expressing and makes it easier to save every precious drop of colostrum (the first milk your body produces). Catch the colostrum in a small, clean container or on a teaspoon if you want to feed it to your baby straight away.
Breast pumps can be manual or electric. Manual pumps can take longer than electric pumps, but they tend to be cheaper and simpler to use. They can also make less noise.
There are lots of electric breast pumps for sale, although some cost a lot. Different pumps suit different people. It may be helpful to talk to your midwife or health visitor about what might be best for you.
A breast pump needs to be cleaned and sterilised every time you use it.
You may find that there is a lot of trial and error in the early days while you work out how feeding works best for you and your baby.
How can I express breast milk by hand?
Some people find hand expressing suits them better than using a pump. You will need to hold a sterilised feeding bottle or container below your breast to catch the milk as it comes out.
Here is how to hand express.
- Wash your hands with soap and warm water.
- Try to relax in a warm, quiet space. It can help to look at a picture of your baby.
- Hold a sterilised container under your breast – a wide jug works well.
- Gently massage your breast to help with the milk flow.
- Cup your breast, with your thumb and finger in a ‘C’ shape a few centimetres back from the base of your nipple, just outside the darker skin that surrounds it (areola).
- Gently squeeze with your fingers and thumb. If no milk appears after a few minutes adjust your fingers forward or back to find the right spot.
- Do not squeeze down on your nipple as this could make you sore. Expressing should not hurt.
- Carry on, building a rhythm until no more milk drops appear.
- When the flow from one breast slows down, swap to the other side and repeat.
If you are expressing your rich, first milk (colostrum) because your baby is premature or sick, you can collect it in a small sterile cup or syringe.
Colostrum is concentrated so you will only produce a little at a time. Try not to worry about this – even a tiny amount will help your baby. Your midwife or the nurse in the hospital will help you to get started.
How do I store expressed breast milk?
Keep expressed breast milk in a sterile container with a lid, or in bags made for storing milk.
You can store your milk:
- for 2 weeks in the ice compartment of a fridge
- for up to 6 months in a freezer if you are sure it is -18 degrees C or lower
- for up to 8 days in the fridge at 4 degrees C or lower. Do not store breast milk in the fridge for more than 3 days if you are not sure how cold your fridge is. It is worth getting a fridge thermometer so you can be sure you are storing breast milk safely.
It is best to defrost frozen breast milk slowly in the fridge. Once it has thawed you can use it straight away.
If your baby needs milk more quickly, you can speed up the defrost process by putting the milk in a jug of warm water, or holding it under running warm water.
- heat milk in the microwave, as it can cause hot spots, which can burn your baby’s mouth
- keep leftover milk for longer than 1 hour
- refreeze defrosted breast milk.
Storing breast milk in small portions, means you can reduce waste and get the most from expressing.
What if my baby is in hospital?
If you are expressing breast milk because your baby is premature or sick, ask the hospital staff for advice on how to store it.
‘My first baby spent some time in the Intensive Care Unit because he was premature. I hand expressed to start with and collected the milk in a syringe. I had to ask my husband to help me as I found it difficult to express and collect the milk. As time went on, I used a hospital electric pump, and then purchased my own so that I could express more. It was nice that both myself and my husband could be part of the feeding routine.’
Your breasts change a lot during and after pregnancy, so it is important to check them regularly and be aware of any unusual changes. This is called ‘breast awareness’. Breast awareness is important because some breast changes might be a sign of breast cancer.
In collaboration with Tommy's, CoppaFeel! has produced a resource especially for women and pregnant people about natural breast changes during and after pregnancy, tips on how to check your breasts and what to do if you notice any changes. Find out more about your breasts during and after pregnancy.
Where can I find more support and information?
You can get advice about expressing by calling the National Breastfeeding Helpline on 0300 100 0212. It is open 9.30am-9.30pm, daily.
The Breastfeeding Network has a leaflet on expressing and storing breast milk.
UNICEF UK’s Baby Friendly Initiative has more on expressing milk in the neonatal unit.