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Expressing - How often and for how long?

Let’s talk pumping in practice

 

How often do I need to express? How long does expressing take? What if I can't pump much?

how often how long

How often you need to express may depend on how much expressed milk you need and why you’re doing it.

If it’s to relieve engorgement, you may only need to hand express enough to feel comfortable. If you are expressing for a premature baby or because you’re returning to work, you will need to express fully and frequently.  

Some mums who are expressing regularly can quickly get large volumes of breastmilk from each breast every few hours. Other mums simply can’t express big volumes at one time, and find it easier to express small amounts more often (e.g. up to 30 mL every 1 to 2 hours). A few mums find it difficult to express, although they have a good supply and their baby is growing well.  

How often should I express?

If you are expressing for a newborn baby, try to express often (at least 8 times in 24 hours). Hand expressing is often easier until your milk supply increases, usually 2 to 6 days after your baby is born.1,2 Try to avoid any long gaps (more than 6 hours) between expressing sessions while you are building up your milk supply.3 This means you may need to express once or twice at night too.

At first you will get a small amount of colostrum. This is normal and enough, as your newborn baby’s stomach only holds a small amount (about a spoonful) of milk. Premature babies need even less. 

Healthy term breastfed babies tend to drink these volumes each feed during the first week:4
  • 1 day old, 2 to 10 mL  
  • 1 to 2 days old, 5 to 15 mL  
  • 2 to 3 days old, 15 to 30 mL  
  • 3 to 4 days old, 30 to 60 mL

Whatever age your baby is, the more milk you take out of your breasts, the more milk you will make. The number of times you express during the day is more important than the length of time you spend expressing.  

At first, you may find it easier to pump for shorter periods but more often. Many mums find a routine of expressing every 2 to 3 hours during the day, with a session just before going to bed, works for them. Each session may be up to 20 to 30 minutes, or until milk no longer flows out but just drips. 

Milk supply and response to expressing varies between mums, so you may have to try different timing to find a pattern that suits you. Some mums set an alarm to pump at night but others find this too tiring. Do what your body tells you is best for you. 

How long does expressing take?

Mums vary in the amount of time it takes them to express. The length of time depends on many factors (time of the day, technique used, pump type and setting, your flow rate).

Many mums find that their expressing session goes for about 15 minutes. Some may need a little more or a little less. For most mums, pumping for 30 minutes or more is too long. Keep going for a few minutes past when your milk stops flowing, as this might trigger another let-down.  

It’s important not to judge how much milk you are making by the amount of milk you can express. Pumping and hand expressing are skills that can take time to learn.   

If your baby is feeding well, they will take more milk from your breast, and more quickly, than you will by pumping or hand expressing. 

 

© Australian Breastfeeding Association January 2023

References
  1. Ohyama, M., Watabe, H., & Hayasaka, Y. (2010). Manual expression and electric breast pumping in the first 48 hours after delivery. Pediatrics International, 52(1), 39–43. 

  1. Morton, J., Hall, J. Y., Wong, R. J., Thairu, L., Benitz, W. E., & Rhine, W. D. (2009). Combining hand techniques with electric pumping increases milk production in mothers of preterm infants. Journal of Perinatology, 29(11), 757–764. 

  1. Lai, C. T., Rea, A., Mitoulas, L. R., Kent, J. C., Simmer, K., Hartmann, P. E., & Geddes, D. (2020). Short-term rate of milk synthesis and expression interval of preterm mothers. Archives of Disease in Childhood. Fetal and Neonatal Edition, 105(3), 266–269. 

  1. Kellams, A., Harrel, C., Omage, S., Gregory, C., & Rosen-Carole, C. (2017). ABM Clinical Protocol #3: Supplementary feedings in the healthy term breastfed neonate, revised 2017. Breastfeeding Medicine, 12, 188–198. 

Read more about expressing and storing