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

After you have made it through labor and delivery, you may be asking yourself “when can I start pumping?”  The answer to this question will depend on your specific situation.  Some moms will need to begin pumping immediately while others can wait a month or more.  Read through the scenarios below to find which one applies to you and to see when we recommend you begin pumping.

The next question moms have after they begin pumping is how much milk should I be pumping?  What are the average ounces per pumping session?  Am I pumping enough breast milk?  Too much?  The answer to these questions vary greatly from mom to mom.

Related article: How to Quickly & Easily Get Your Free Breast Pump

In the early weeks of your baby’s life (weeks 1-3), your baby will only take around 1-2 ounces of milk into their tiny bellies.  Around 4-5 weeks, your baby’s belly grows and he/she will begin taking 3-4 ounces of breast milk per feeding.  This amount will not change for the rest of your breastfeeding journey.  The nutrients in your breast milk will change to accommodate your growing baby, but he/she will still only take 3-4 ounces of breast milk on average.

We have listed the average ounces per pumping session below each scenario.  Note that these are averages.  Your output may be lower or higher depending on many factors such as your caloric intake, hydration levels, and your breast milk storage capacity.

Related article: The Top 3 Best Breast Pumps for Working Moms

An important note before you start pumping is to make sure you know how to use your pump.  If this is your first time pumping, you will need to understand the controls on your pump and how exactly it works.  There can be a learning curve at first with pumping, so read through your pump’s manual and watch any available instruction videos.  You can also check out our guide on How to Pump Breast Milk.

1. When Can I Start Pumping Scenario #1: You plan to exclusively pump.

If you know you are not able to breastfeed due to your baby’s health or inability to nurse at the breast, known breast issues, or your personal preference, you will need to begin pumping immediately after the birth of your child.  This means that within 2-3 hours of your baby being born, you should begin pumping.  Pump sessions should last for 15-20 minutes and should occur every 2-3 hours for the first several weeks of your baby’s life.  

Related article: Pumping Supplies – All The Essentials You Need

Be aware that you will only express colostrum until your milk comes in on day 2-4 after you deliver your baby.  Colostrum is a thick yellow substance filled with nutrients that your baby needs.  According to the American Pregnancy Association, you likely will only pump around 1-4 teaspoons of colostrum in the early days of your baby’s life.  This is the perfect amount for your newborn as your baby’s stomach is only the size of a marble.

If you deliver your baby in a hospital, you can request a hospital grade pump to use during your stay.  Hospital grade pumps have extra features compared to insurance-provided breast pumps.  They contain larger motors which allow for stronger and more efficient pumping.  Your nurse or hospital lactation consultant can help you become oriented to it.

Average ounces per pumping session:

  • 0.5-2 ounces per session for weeks 1-2
  • 3-4 ounces per session after week 3

2. When Can I Start Pumping Scenario #2: You need to be separated from your baby after birth or your baby has health issues.

If you find yourself facing separation from your baby for a prolonged period of time after he is born or your baby has health issues such as low birth weight, jaundice, low blood sugar, or a congenital disorder, you will need to begin pumping within 2-3 hours of birth.  Even if your baby will be in the NICU for some period of time, you can begin pumping and storing your breast milk for when your baby needs it.

Related article: The 5 Best Bottles for Breastfed Babies

Similar to scenario #1 above, you will pump colostrum at first.  Be sure to request a hospital grade pump while you are hospitalized–and even consider renting one.

Average ounces per pumping session:

  • 0.5-2 ounces per session for weeks 1-2
  • 3-4 ounces per session after week 3

3. When Can I Start Pumping Scenario #3: You plan to breastfeed, but are returning to work or would like extra milk available.

If you plan to breastfeed, but are returning to work or you simply want some extra milk available so that someone else can feed your baby, you should wait to begin pumping until 6 weeks postpartum.  Your milk supply regulates around the 6 week mark.  If you begin pumping too soon, you run the risk of creating an oversupply of breast milk.  This can cause lots of painful issues including mastitis or clogged milk ducts.

Related article: Breastfeeding While Sick – Everything You Need to Know

Your body produces breast milk by supply and demand.  If you demand too much milk by pumping too soon (in addition to breastfeeding baby on demand), your supply will be more than you need.

By waiting until 6 weeks, your body will have adjusted to your baby’s needs.  Adding one or two pump sessions once a day should limit the risk of an oversupply.  See our article on How to Build a Freezer Stash of Breast Milk (with little effort!) for more guidance.

Additionally, you can wait longer to pump if you so wish.  Some moms choose to wait until 2-3 weeks before they return to work to begin pumping.  The only caution here is that you need your baby to become familiar with drinking milk from a bottle instead of your breast.  The ideal time to introduce a bottle to a baby is around 5-6 weeks.

Related article: The 5 Best Formulas for Supplementing While Breastfeeding

If you do decide to wait until closer to the date you return to work to begin pumping, see our article Baby Refusing Bottle? Try This. for tips on how to help your baby take a bottle.

Average ounces per pumping session:

  • 0.5-2 ounces per session if you pump after baby feeds at the breast
  • 3-4 ounces per session if you are replacing a feed (i.e. pumping at work or are away from your baby)

Many moms think they are not pumping enough if they only get 0.5 ounces from both breasts after their baby nurses.  This is not the case.  Your baby removed most of the milk from your breast.  Having 0.5 ounces of milk in your breast (and only expressing that amount) is perfectly normal.

Related article: Do I Need to Pump at Night When Baby Sleeps Through the Night?

The best thing to remember when pumping is that your body needs time to adjust to the breast pump–no matter if your baby is one week old or 12 weeks old.  Your baby is more efficient than a breast pump at removing milk from the best.  With that said, your body will adjust to the suction of the pump.  You must give your body time and make sure you are pumping as efficiently as possible.

Check out these articles for further help with ensuring optimal pumping output:

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