MY UNSOLICITED PUMPING ADVICE
The human body is amazing and the fact that we are able to make milk for our babies is such a beautiful thing. I think most moms have a desire to breast feed, so much so that they get really disappointed and discouraged when they can’t. Hospitals and lactation consultants can at times make you feel like a failure when you don’t produce. They put the pressure on you and emphasize it’s importance and how good it is for your baby. Obviously, we always want to do what’s best for our babies, but sometimes we can’t or maybe just don’t really know how.
So here is some advice and some tips for breast-pumping. They’re specific to pumping because in my situation, my son never had the chance to latch on. I had to produce milk 3 months before my body would normally start and it was exclusively through pumping, as preemies can’t attempt to latch on until after 32-34 weeks. All of the breast milk they are given is through a feeding tube at first, then via bottle when ready to latch on.
Establishing and maintaining milk supply when you don’t have your baby to latch on is much more difficult. For starters, babies are usually more efficient at getting milk out than a pump. It is also challenging when you don’t have your baby around to make your body aware of the demand it needs to be meeting. Its especially harder when your baby arrives WAY before your body was expecting and is only drinking 1 or 2 ml’s at the moment.
With that being said, breast milk is particularly crucial and important for preemies.It almost functions as medicine. They need all of the nutrients and vitamins found in the milk in addition to it being easier to digest than formula. This is particularly important for preemies as their digestive system is premature and sometimes can’t handle formula. Anytime a preemie received formula, their risk of serious illness increases. In fact, one of the top causes of premature deaths is related to feeding and to the digestive system (NEC – I’ll get into this in detail in another post). No pressure, right?
I will tell you from experience that it is hard and a ton of work. But I encourage you to follow some of my tips below and really try with all you’ve got. Seeing my son in the NICU, with me able to do absolutely nothing for him, truly empowered me to pump my days and nights away. It was the one thing I felt I could try my best to do for him as his mother that no one else could do. Supplying his milk became my number one focus and mission as no doctor, nurse or specialist could play that role for him. This was my time to be a mom for the first time and do my duty and give it my all. I hope you find my tips helpful and I hope they empower you to keep trying.
Consistency: You have to make sure you are consistently pumping every 2-3 hours. Even if you’re not getting anything at first, keep going. You will be tired and you will feel like you JUST finished pumping 20 minutes ago, but you have to be consistent. Your body functions by supply and demand. If you aren’t trying to get milk out frequently, your body will believe you don’t need it or have enough and will either not produce or begin to produce less and less. Trust me. I went from pumping 8 times a day to eventually just 3 times a day and the change was drastic. My supply was cut in half. Aim for 8 sessions a day, especially at first, to establish your supply and maintain it.
Persistence: You will NOT have milk right away. I think I pumped for almost two days straight before I got a drop– one drop that my husband immediately rushed over to the NICU. I was so proud and excited to finally give even that one drop to my son. It took a good 12-15, twenty-minute sessions before I saw anything happen. I felt stupid sometimes just pumping away with nothing coming out, over and over again. At times I even told myself, “Why are you doing this? Get some rest, you don’t have any milk”. But I decided to keep going and believe that eventually, my body would respond. I was persistent and wouldn’t stop until I knew I had exhausted all resources. Eventually, I was pumping 4-6 ounces per session. The pictures below show the first time I was able to pump one ounce of colostrum vs what my freezer eventually started looking like.
Hospital-Grade Pump: This made all of the difference, especially if you have a preemie. Hospital-grade pumps are specifically made for long-term and frequent pumping. It’s the best pump to really get the most milk out. I speak from experience as I had purchased the electric Medela double-pump and my hospital provided me with the Medela Symphony hospital-grade pump. At first, I was tempted to decline the hospital grade pump. “I have my own”, I confidently told the lactation consultant. But she explained that this pump had a two-phase expression technology that was twice as effective in getting milk out and maintaining supply when you’re exclusively pumping. I tried both pumps out and there was no comparison. Zero milk came out with my double-pump I ordered– zero– not a single drop. But with the hospital grade pump, I pumped probably over 500 bags of milk during my son’s NICU stay. It even has a preemie setting. These pumps are very expensive but you can usually rent them at the hospital. I wouldn’t have been able to come close to the amount I eventually pumped without it .
Pictures/Sounds of Baby: If you are pumping away from your baby, surround yourself with pictures, videos, and sounds of your baby. I don’t know why this works but it does. It helps you focus on your baby and the task at hand. Maybe it’s a calming factor– the thought of them being in the room with you, drinking milk and bonding over this experience.
Massaging: I never got as much milk out by simply letting the pump go to work. The best method I found was simultaneously massaging my breasts as the pump was doing its work. Studies have shown that using a hands-on approach along with the pump will get you 48% more milk. That’s a huge difference and I can attest to that! Once your supply starts building, you’ll actually be able to feel where your breasts are beginning to harden because of milk accumulation. Massaging these areas while pumping will help ensure all the milk gets expelled. It’s very important that during every pump, you empty yourself out. Leaving milk behind goes back to the whole “supply-demand” thing. If you don’t use it, your body thinks you don’t need it.
Hands-Free: When using a double pump, you’d have to hold each shield to your nipple to keep it in place. This is inconvenient as you can’t use your hands to help massage your breasts or to do anything else during the time you’re pumping. I purchased a pumping bra and it was the BEST money spent, hands down. It holds the shields in place so you can utilize your hands to do whatever else you need to do at that moment. If you can’t afford one, you can cut holes in a sports bra and make your own. I hear it’s just as effective!
Diet & Rest: Drink lots and lots of water and maintain a healthy diet. You need to be eating well and eating plenty as pumping/breast feeding burns calories. In addition, if you’d like to try and boost supply, there are lactation cookies out there that I’ve heard work well. I personally drank Malta every other day and saw a difference in my supply. In between pump sessions, get some rest. You will be exhausted pumping so frequently and it will take a toll on you. Take naps and let someone else worry about house chores for now.
The Right Tools: Make sure you’re prepared with the right tools and supplies. As an example, nipple shields come in a number of sizes. I was using the wrong size for a while. It caused me a lot of unnecessary pain and bleeding around my nipples. This would have been totally preventable if I had only known the shield I was using was too big. Finding the right size makes all of the difference. In addition, I recommend having some soothing/cooling gels and nursing pads handy. The soothing gels come in handy the first couple of weeks when your nipples are getting used to the pump and may be a little sore. The nursing pads are essential once your supply is up, as leaking can occur. I promise it’s not fun to wake up in a bed soaked with milk. Lastly, be sure you have plenty of storage bags or bottles ready. Bottles can get expensive if you plan on storing a lot of milk so I highly recommend sticking to the bags. I’m a big Medela fan and recommend those (and practically all of their products).
Record: Get an app and record your daily supply. It might seem discouraging at first when you don’t have much. But as your supply starts increasing, it’s great to know how much you’re producing and if you’re meeting your baby’s needs. You’ll eventually be encouraged as you see little changes in your total ounces for the day. You won’t go from 0 to 20 ounces overnight. It’s a slow process and tracking your progress helps you set small goals and evaluate if your methods are effective or if you need to try something else. You’ve got this!