There may be times after giving birth when a new mom may wish to remove milk from her breasts (such as in the case of engorgement) or wants to provide extra stimulation to her breasts to increase milk production (such as when a baby may be refusing to latch on one side). Most moms think using a breast pump is best for this purpose, but in the early postpartum days there is actually a much easier solution: hand expression.
What is hand expression?
Hand expression is just what it sounds like: when a mother uses her own hands to express milk from her breasts rather than relying on a pump. When the volume of milk is still small and colostrum is still being produced, hand expression can often be more effective than a pump for removing milk. In fact, hand expression doesn’t just have to be done by mom. If she needs help or is ill, a partner or lactation consultant can help do this as well.
Why should I do it?
Studies have shown that moms who hand express in the first few days postpartum, while their milk supplies are being established, actually produce more milk and are more successful with breastfeeding. This technique guarantees that even if a baby is having latching troubles or is sleepy, for example, that the breast is still being stimulated and milk is being removed. For moms who have babies in the NICU, this can be an excellent way to provide breast milk for them and still feel involved in their care.
How do I do it?
The first time you try hand expression you might feel like you have no idea what you are doing, but with just a bit of practice soon this will become second nature. The key is to be gentle with your breasts: do not place your fingers right on your areola, avoid pinching or rubbing too hard, and massage your breasts before you start to help the milk flow. You can watch a great 7 minute tutorial here. Or you can try the Marmet Technique for hand expression.
But I’m only getting a few drops!
Yes, but those drops are colostrum and are considered liquid gold! Keep in mind your baby’s stomach is small in the first few days, so this amount of milk is perfectly normal. Collect what you get on a plastic spoon or in a syringe and feed it to your baby. It may not seem like a lot, but it’s exactly what your baby wants!
What about when my milk comes in?
This technique can also be used for when you start producing large volumes of milk. Some women who are rarely separated from their babies will rely on this rather than purchasing a pump for the few times they need to express milk during separation. It can also be helpful for those times when you find yourself separated from your baby for longer than you anticipated — a quick session of hand expression can empty your breasts enough to feel comfortable until you are reunited again.
Reviewed by Dr. Sara Connolly, March 2020
- Hand expression is when a mother uses her own hands to express milk from her breasts rather than relying on a pump.
- Doing this in the first few days postpartum can help establish a good milk supply.
- This can be useful if a woman feels engorged or her baby is having trouble latching.