You may want to express milk if:
- your baby is in the neonatal unit and is unable to feed from the breast
- you’re going to be away from you baby, for example if you’re going back to work
- your breasts are full (engorged)
- you’re struggling to breastfeed but still want to give your baby breast milk
- you want to share feeds with your partner.
If you can, it’s best to wait until your baby is a little older before regularly expressing milk, so you have a chance to get breastfeeding going well first.
If your baby is premature
If your baby is too small or sick to breastfeed, you’ll need to start regularly expressing so you can get your milk supply going. This will help you to start breastfeeding when you and your baby are ready.
It’s recommended that you express 8 to 10 times a day to begin with, including once a night, to keep your supply up.
How do I express breast milk?
You can express milk by hand or with a breast pump, which can be manual or electric. There are lots of electric breast pumps available and these can be expensive. Different pumps suit different women, so it may be helpful to talk to your midwife or health visitor about what’s best for you.
If you use a breast pump, it needs to be cleaned and sterilised every time you use it.
You may find that there is a lot of experimenting in the early days, while you work out how feeding works best for you and your baby.
Expressing by hand
If you need to express in the first few days, it’s easier to do it by hand. Here’s how:
- wash your hands with soap and warm water
- gently massage your breast
- cup the breast with the thumb and finger in a ‘C’ shape about 2–3 cm back from the base of the nipple
- gently squeeze, bringing the fingers and thumb together in a rhythmic action (if no milk appears after a few minutes, move the fingers a fraction forward or back to find the right spot)
- continue until no more milk drops appear (avoid sliding the fingers as this can damage the breast)
- collect the milk in a sterile cup or bottle (or ‘sucked up’ in a syringe for colostrum)
- when flow from one breast slows down, swap to the other side and repeat.
Storing expressed breast milk
Remember to use a sterilised container to put the milk in.
You can store your milk:
- for up to 5 days in the fridge at 40˚C. or lower (usually at the back of the fridge, never in the door)
- for 2 weeks in the ice compartment of a fridge
- for up to 6 months in a freezer.
Frozen breast milk should be defrosted in the fridge. Once it’s thawed, you can use it straight away.
If your baby prefers, you can warm the milk up to body temperature before feeding. Never heat milk in the microwave as it can cause hot spots which can burn your baby’s mouth.
If your baby is in hospital
If you're 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’s 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 new 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.
NHS Choices. Breastfeeding your premature baby https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/breastfeeding-premature-baby/ (Page last reviewed: 02/10/2016. Next review due: 02/10/2019)
Sue Macdonald, Gail Johnson, Mayes’ Midwifery. Edinburgh: Baillir̈e Tindall Elsevier, 2017
Department of health and the Baby friendly initiative (2015) Off to the best start. Information about feeding your baby https://www.unicef.org.uk/babyfriendly/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2010/11/otbs_leaflet.pdf