How I wasted my time pumping a few drops of milk until I figured out how to use a breast pump. Could you be making the same mistakes that I was?

While pumping is not glamorous or comfortable, it should not hurt or take more than 15 to 20 minutes to finish. If you have any of these common pumping problems, then something is wrong.

Problem: Ouch! My breast pump hurts. My nipples are sore and my pump pinches.

  • Are you using the right size breast shield? A lot of pain problems are caused by using the wrong size. Your nipples should not touch the sides of the tube protruding from the breast horn. If you have problems with rubbing or your nipple is too large to fit into the tube, then you need a bigger size. You can get breast shields in different sizes either online or by calling the manufacturer. What if your nipple and areola (the skin around your nipple) gets sucked into the tube with each pump? Then your breast shield is too big. Go down in size until only your nipple moves in and out of the tube.
  • Is your pump set at the right speed? Most electric breast pumps allow you to change both the rate of suction and the strength of suction. Most babies suck at around 60 beats a minute, or one suck per second. You should set your pump to this speed at the start and then increase it until it feels similar to how your baby suckles. A rate that is too slow will pull and tug at your nipple for a longer time which causes soreness and pain.
  • Is your pump set too strong? While we as a culture believe that more is better and ‘no pain, no gain’, this does not apply to expressing milk! Turning the pump up until it feels like it’s ripping off your nipples will not empty your breasts faster. The right level of suction is one or two levels below what you can tolerate. Increase the strength of suction up until you feel discomfort. Then step down one or two settings. This is your optimal setting.

Problem: I’m not getting enough suction to express more than a few drops of milk and it takes forever to finish pumping.

  • Did you forget a part? Besides the obvious visible parts, there are also valves and membranes that are needed for your pump to work correctly. Go grab the instruction manual for your model of pump and make sure you haven’t left out an important widget.
  • Do you get a tight vacuum between your breast horn and breast? Breast shields are made for ‘average breasts’ (whatever that means), and they might be a poor fit for your breast shape. You need a tight vacuum between the horn and your skin (like a suction cup) for the pump to draw out milk. You can try to get a tighter seal between the horn and your skin by applying water, nipple cream, or Vaseline to the edges of the horn.
  • Are you using a battery powered pump? You might be running low on power and as this happens, the pump will work slower and weaker until you run out of power completely. Pumps that run on AA batteries can usually last 2-3 20 minute pumping sessions before the batteries need to be replaced. Make sure your pump is fully charged before you use it.
  • Are your tubes or other parts cracked? The plastic parts can crack from impact or over time if you sterilize them in boiling water after each time you pump. The tubes can also crack or develop pin-hole leaks. Examine all the parts to see if there’s any cracks or holes that are causing a leak.
  • Is there dried breast milk or other crud trapped inside the parts? Build up and dirt can block air flow or milk flow. Make sure you thoroughly clean all the parts (except the pump and tubes) with warm water and soap each time you finish pumping. For working moms or traveling moms who pump away from home, use cleaning wipes to get rid of all the excess milk and grease until you can do a more thorough cleaning when you get home. Sterilize the parts at least once a day. Some women are more thorough and sterilize their pump parts every time they finish pumping, but that may shorten the life of the parts. You can sterilize the parts in boiling water for 10 minutes, use a microwave sterilizer, or a microwave sterilizing bag.

Problem: I can’t pump more than an ounce or two of milk even though my baby eats more than this each time I nurse.

  • If your breast doesn’t feel completely drained when you use your pump, you might need to stop and massage your breast to encourage the milk to continue flowing. Massage and squeeze your breast from the outer edges toward your nipple. Cycle your pump back to let-down mode to stimulate fresh milk flow.
  • Is something about the environment stressing you out? While breastfeeding is soothing and relaxing, pumping lacks the warmth and comfort of holding your baby against your chest. Any amount of stress will block your let-down reflex and prevent you from expressing. Bring a warm cover for your shoulders and chest, listen to music with earbuds to block outside noise, watch videos of your baby, bring something of your baby’s along with you and breathe in their scent, close your eyes and visualize your baby in your arms. Do whatever it takes to relax and forget about the machine attached to your chest and the milk will flow again.
  • If you are pumping and breastfeeding at the same time, then you might not be pumping often enough or long enough and your milk supply may be drying up! The best way to build up your milk supply is to pump often (at least once every two hours) and to pump longer each time (at least for 15 to 20 minutes). It doesn’t matter how much milk you express at first, but the simple act of pumping longer and more often will increase your milk supply.

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