Pumping Exclusively

When Breastfeeding Isn't Possible But Pumping Exclusively Is

Breast pump next to baby
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When a baby isn’t breastfeeding, effective milk removal from the breasts becomes critical. Pumping exclusively can be necessary in a variety of settings: when a baby is born prematurely or cannot breastfeed due to illness; when mom needs to be away for a period of time; or when a baby refuses to latch at the breast. Some moms begin pumping and, though the reason they initially began to express is resolved, find that their baby prefers receiving milk in a bottle. Rather than try to retrain their baby, they decide to pump exclusively and give breast milk in a cup or baby bottle. Whatever the reason, if you find yourself in a situation of exclusive pumping here are some tips and advice that can help.

Establish Your Milk Supply

The most important thing one needs to do when exclusively pumping is establish a full milk supply. Your body needs to get the message to make enough milk for your baby. Perhaps your baby was born prematurely and isn’t taking much milk in a 24 hour period. This will change in a few weeks and your body needs to make sure it has the supply ready for your baby. In the beginning, a mother should pump a minimum of eight times in a 24 hour period for at least 20 minutes on each breast. It will help to record what time you pump and how much milk you get. A double electric pump is the most efficient way to do this. Though hand expression, single pumps, and manual pumps are all other options, a double electric pump of good quality has been found to stimulate greater milk production.

An empty breast makes more milk. Therefore the more completely the breast is drained and the more frequently this occurs, the more milk a mother’s body will make. It is completely possible for a mother to make enough milk to exclusively nurse twins or even triplets!

After a full supply is established (25-35 ounces per baby every 24 hours) then a mother can shorten the duration of pumping at each session to the amount of time necessary to gather the required milk (this could be as short as 5 minutes, but typically is 10-15 minutes). In general, once the supply is established, one nighttime pumping session can be dropped but it is important to ensure a mother is still pumping at least once during the night and never going more than 4-6 hours between pumping during the longest interval between sessions. However, every mother is different and every breast has a different storage capacity. While a few mothers may be able to go 10-12 hours between their longest stretch, other mothers can only go 3-4 hours. Full breasts make milk more slowly so the longer a mother waits between pumping sessions, the slower the milk production becomes. Every mother will have to work out what her “magic number” is for how many times to pump and how long in order to maintain supply. A general guide, once milk supply is established, is for a mom to pump 6-7 times in a 24 hour period, at least once during the night, and only for the time it takes to get the required amount of milk. Should a mother notice her milk supply beginning to decrease from the shortened pumping duration and/or number of sessions she should return to pumping more often and for a longer duration.

Emotional Toll of Pumping Exclusively

Expressing can be hard and emotional and a mother may need to grieve not being able to nurse her baby at her breast. While expressing milk helps a mother connect with her baby, it also is a symbol of the disconnection. Realizing that grieving is not only important but normal is critical to dealing with one’s feelings and healing. No matter how long a mother has been exclusively pumping, transitioning back to breastfeeding is always an option. And, when she is ready to wean from expressing there are ways to do this both safely and comfortably.


Hurst, N.M. & Meier, P.P. (2010). Breastfeeding the Preterm Infant. In J. Riordan (Ed.), Breastfeeding and Human Lactation (4th ed., pp. 425-470). Boston, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
Morton, J., et al. (2009). Combining hand techniques with electric pumping increases milk production in mothers of preterm infants. Journal of Perinatology, 29(11), 757-764.
Slusher, T. et al. (2007). Electric breast pump use increased maternal milk volume in African nurseries. Journal of Tropical Pediatrics, 53(2), 125-130.
Sweet, L. (2008). Expressed breast milk as ‘conection’ and its influence on the construction of ‘motherhood’ for mothers of preterm infants: a qualitative study. International Breastfeeding Journal, 3, 30.

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