How to Pump Breast Milk: The Complete Guide

An introduction on how to use a breast pump to express breast milk.

If this is your first time figuring out how to pump breast milk, there is no doubt that it will seem daunting.  Figuring out how all the pieces fit together and then placing plastic funnels on your boobs while a machine sucks milk out will not feel natural…at all.  But channel your inner dairy cow, mama, and read on!

As you likely noticed by now, there are several different brands and types of pumps.  If you are reading this article, you have probably already chosen one from your insurance company. If you have not figured out which pump to get yet, see our article on the Best Breast Pumps for Working Moms. Most pumps are similar in nature, but we recommend following your specific pump’s instruction care manual to sanitize/clean/assemble in order to optimize your milk output.  We have collected videos and information below to help you with this.

Related article: How to Quickly & Easily Get a FREE Breast Pump Through Insurance

Cleaning Your Breast Pump

We know you have not used your pump yet and are eager to learn how to pump breast milk, but in order to make sure all of the parts are super clean from the get go, sanitize those suckers.  “Sanitizing” and “cleaning” are two separate procedures. 

Sanitizing is a standard process for all pumps. It involves taking all of the pieces that touch your breast or milk (bottles, flange, membrane, valves), and placing them in boiling water for 5-10 minutes.  You do not need to sanitize the breast pump tubing unless it comes into contact with milk. Most moms find that sanitizing their pump parts once a month suffices. However, if you wish to sanitize weekly or even daily, then do whatever makes YOU feel comfortable. If you would prefer to sterilize daily but do not have time to boil the parts each day, then you can use microwavable steam bags to quickly sterilize your parts (bonus: you can also sanitize baby bottles in these bags!). Make sure your parts are microwave safe (check your manual, most are).

Related article: Hand Me Down Pump: Good Idea or Not?

Cleaning is the daily process you will go through that involves washing all of the parts that come in contact with milk or your breasts.  Place all of the breast pump parts in hot soapy water. Allow them to soak for a few minutes, and then scrub them with a bottle brush. Place them on a drying rack to allow them to air dry. If your parts are dishwasher safe (check your manual, most are), you can place them in a dishwasher basket in order to clean them. The only caution here is that you do not want little bits of food getting lodged in any of the parts–especially the valves or in the tiny spaces within the flanges.

Related article: The 5 Best Nursing Bras According to Real Breastfeeding Moms

Find your pump from the list of most common pumps below for specific instructions on how to sanitize and clean your pump parts:

Assembling Your Breast Pump

Putting your pump together for the first time will give you a glimpse into the future when you will be assembling toys for your little love nugget.  Even though it may seem strange and foreign to put a membrane on a valve to attach to a flange, before long you will be able to assemble a pump in your sleep—and you might even need to!  Again, most pumps are alike, but find yours from the list below to see exactly how to assemble it:

Related article: When Can I Start Pumping? Let’s Figure It Out!

Pumping Breast Milk

After you have sanitized, cleaned, and assembled your parts, it’s time to start pumping.  Having a hands-free bra or Freemie Collection Cups will make a world of difference in your pumping comfort level.  Being able to move your hands while you pump will you give freedom to do other activities (check your phone, continue working, play with the baby, etc.) instead of holding the flanges to your boobs for 15+ minutes. Once you have your flanges or cups positioned in your bra, turn your pump on.

Now it is finally time to explain how to pump breast milk!

Related article: 10 Reasons Why You Need to Buy the Willow Breast Pump

Depending on what type of pump you have, you will either start in letdown mode or expression mode.  Medela pumps start in letdown mode, whereas Spectra pumps begin in expression mode.  You want to begin pumping in letdown mode, regardless of the type of pump you have.  If that does not make sense, think about it like this: the faster sucking mode is the letdown mode and is similar to when your baby first latches on to your breast.  This slower sucking is the expression mode you will transition into once the breast milk begins flowing and is similar to the longer rhythmic sucks your baby makes once your milk lets down.

Related article: Pros & Cons of Pumping Before Birth-Good Idea or Not?

It may take a few minutes in letdown mode for breast milk to start expressing.  Once you are in letdown mode, it is best to relax (ha!).  We know it is hard at first, but look at 37 of the 23,745 pictures of your baby on your phone.  Scroll through Instagram.  Play Candy Crush (is that still a thing?).  Listen to music or an audiobook.  Try a meditation app.  Answers emails if you need to!  Just try your best to relax.  Visualize milk coming out of your milk ducts (a little odd, but, hey, whatever works).  Your body will respond.  You may (or may not) feel a prickly sensation when your breast milk lets down.  At this point, milk should be spraying or dripping into the bottles.  Press the mode button on your pump to enter into expression mode

Related article: 8 Pumping at Night Hacks to Make Your Nights Easier!

If you find that you are having a hard time getting a letdown, do not stress yourself out. Disconnect from your pump, take a walk, and try again in 10-20 minutes.

Related article: The Perfect Breastfeeding Snack: Lactation Fudge

How Long To Pump Breast Milk

Expression mode is where you will hang out for the next 15-20 minutes.  Some moms find they can pump to empty in as little as 8-10 minutes.  However, most moms will spend about 15 minutes hooked to the pump so that their breasts are completely emptied of milk.  Some moms find they need to pump for 30 minutes to be emptied.  You will need to try different amounts of time to see how long to pump breast milk optimally.  Ideally, your breasts will go from feeling full when you cup them, to feeling looser and back to regular softness after you pump.  Determining how long to pump to breast milk is highly individual and will take some trial and error. 

Related article: Breast Pump Not Working? Here’s 5 Troubleshooting Tips to Try.

Another thing to keep in mind is that pumping for a longer time does not necessarily mean more breast milk.  However, you may have a second letdown if you stay attached to your breast pump long enough.  This can be achieved by staying in expression mode after milk has stopped flowing from your first letdown.  Or you can switch back into letdown mode and allow your breasts to be simulated quickly again.  You may notice a second letdown after a few minutes which will help you determine how long to pump.  Note that you may not get a second letdown, and that is totally fine and normal.  By and large, 15-20 minutes is the average amount of time needed to empty breasts of breast milk via a breast pump.

Related article: How Often Should I Pump at Work?

Determining the Right Suction Level

After you have determined how long to pump, you will want to play around with the suction level on your pump.  Do not assume that you need to turn your pump to the highest suction level in order to get more breast milk.  Instead, think of how your baby nurses at the breast.  She starts off with a strong, quick suck (similar to letdown mode) and then moves into a slower, rhythmic suck (expression mode) once breast milk starts flowing.  She does not (or should not) suck your nipple into her mouth with the strength of a Dyson vacuum.  Similarly, you do not need to crank your pump up to max velocity suction.  After you have a letdown, adjust the speed to medium—or whatever speed is comfortable—and allow the breast milk to flow comfortably.  The breast pump should not be painfully pulling on your nipples with uncomfortable force.  It should be mimicking your baby’s suction.

Related article: The 5 Best Bottles for Breastfed Babies

If you are doing all of the above and you still find it painful to pump, you can try adding a little bit of coconut oil to the breast pump flange. This will lubricate your nipple and make the suction smoother. Also make sure you have the correct flange size. Depending on the size of your nipple (not your breast), you may need a smaller or larger flange. Check out our article on Determining Your Correct Flange Size (So Pumping Doesn’t Hurt!) for more help with this.

There are also products on the market that sit inside the breast plump flange to make your nipple more comfortable. Many of our moms use BeauGen Cushions with great success. We did a full run down on BeauGen Cushions you can check out: BeauGen Cushions: What Exactly Are They? How Do I Use Them? Are They Worth It?

Related article: How to Store Breast Milk After Pumping

Massaging Your Breasts To Get More Milk

While you are in expression mode, you may find it beneficial to massage your breasts in order to help stimulate and remove breast milk.  There have been studies that show that massaging your breasts while pumping can increase the amount of breast milk you pump.  There are a few different hands-on pumping methods:

  1. While wearing a hands-free bra, cup your breasts in the shape of a C.  Place your hands on either side of your breasts.  Gently squeeze and release several times.  Move your hands underneath your breasts, while still in the shape of a C, and repeat the compressions.  Finally, move to the top of your breasts with your hands in the C-shape and squeeze and release.
  2. Stroke your breasts from the outside toward your nipples, applying gentle pressure.  Repeat this from the outside of your breasts and on the top of your breasts.
  3. Using your index and middle finger, perform spiral compressions on the side and top of your breasts, making circular motions toward your nipple.

Stanford University produced this helpful video that shows various techniques you can use.  Remember to be gentle.  Hands-on pumping and massage should never hurt or feel uncomfortable.

Related article: How to Increase Breast Milk Supply (Fast!)

Finally, remember to be patient. Figuring out how to pump breast milk has a learning curve. You WILL master it in no time. Once you get the hang of pumping breast milk at home, make sure to check out our post on How to Pump Breast at Work. Breast of luck!

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Shannon Tisdale
Shannon founded Work Breastfeed Mom in 2019 during her second round of pumping at work. She was tired of googling the same pumping questions over and over again, and discouraged at the lack of websites aimed at working breastfeeding moms. So, she created one herself. Shannon lives, works, and doles out Puffs to her little people in sunny Florida. She has her MBA and works as a strategic planner for a large healthcare system. She is passionate about coffee, memoirs, paddle boarding, and skincare routines. Shannon is mom to Scarlett and Ivy, and hopes to have more babies if her career allows.