Moms who pump – whether they are heading back to work, caring for a baby who cannot breastfeed or wanting to build a freezer stash – are quick to know when their milk supply drops. And when that decrease is consistent, they may begin to worry they aren't providing enough milk for their baby.
Dawn Schindler, RN, BSN, IBCLC, is a lactation consultant at the Level IV Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) at Children's Health℠ and regularly works with pumping moms who want to increase their breast milk supply. She shares how moms can boost supply and answers some of the most commonly asked questions about pumping.
Can pumping decrease milk supply?
Pumping itself does not decrease your breast milk supply. In fact, it can help boost it. But if you are having trouble with low milk supply, the first step is to check that you are using the right breast pump.
"When a mom comes to us with pumping or supply questions, often the first thing we check is the mother's pump," says Schindler. "It's important that the pump being used not only works properly but that the pump parts also fit correctly." A lactation consultant can help assess that a breast pump is working for the mother to increase and support milk supply.
How to choose the right breast pump
Moms who pump regularly or exclusively should use a quality electric breast pump. If possible, choose a hospital-grade double electric pump that can effectively pump both breasts at once.
"A hand-held pump may not express enough milk and it takes more time to pump one breast at a time," Schindler explains.
Pay attention to the breast pump flange size
Breast pumps aren't one size fits all. The flange, or breast shield, is the portion that fits over the nipple. The flange should fit comfortably, covering the nipple and part of the breast with no gaps around the cup.
Select appropriate suction settings
Most breast pumps have several suction levels. However, higher suction doesn't mean you will extract more milk. "Breast pumps set too high can cause damage to the nipple and ultimately affect milk supply levels," says Schindler. "Make sure you are using the setting that is right for you."
Tips to increase breast milk supply when pumping
Beyond choosing the right breast pump, there are other ways moms can improve a low milk supply while pumping such as increasing pumping frequency, hydrating and eating well, having skin-to-skin contact with baby and creating a comfortable pumping environment.
Increase pumping frequency
Generally, moms should be pumping every 3 hours. Pumping more often can help stimulate breasts to produce more milk. Moms can try pumping both breasts for 15 minutes every two hours for 48-72 hours. Then moms can return to their normal pumping routine. Pumping for longer than 30 minutes may not be beneficial. This may just lead to sore nipples.
If pumping that often isn't feasible, Schindler and her team also suggest power pumping.
Power pumping lets moms maintain their regular pumping schedule but incorporates one hour of power pumping. Moms pick one hour in the day – usually in the afternoon when supply isn't naturally high or low – and pump 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off, for one hour.
"You may not get any additional milk after the first 10-minute session, but it's important to continue throughout the hour," Schindler says. "After moms do this once a day for 4-5 days, they may notice a small increase in their overall milk supply."
Moms can receive extra stimulation from the breast pump by changing the speed of the pump from stimulation or "massage" to milk removal or "expression" every 5 minutes while pumping. This may stimulate more milk production.
Hydrate and choose the right foods to increase milk supply
Getting enough rest, drinking plenty of fluids and eating a healthy diet high in protein are the best ways to help improve and protect milk supply.
Certain foods, called galactogogues, may help to increase milk production. Common foods used as galactogogues include oatmeal, brewer's yeast, garlic, spinach, fennel and almonds. However, a well-balanced diet is the best approach to stay healthy while pumping.
Schindler often advises mothers to avoid pills and supplements marketed to improve supply. "There's no magic pills moms can take to boost their supply," Schindler cautions.
"Herbal supplements aren't always monitored by the FDA so we can't know exactly what's in them. It's best to talk with your pediatrician about what's safe for you and baby and stick with the basics."
Research has shown that several foods and substances can negatively impact milk supply. Schindler encourages moms to avoid:
- Caffeine (limit to 1-2 servings per day)
- Cold and allergy medicines that contain Sudafed (Pseudoephedrine)
- Certain prescription medicine
Your pediatrician and obstetrician can help you find medicine that is safe to take while pumping and that won't impact your supply.
Make time for skin-to-skin
Skin-to-skin contact, also called kangaroo care, is when a mother or father holds a baby on their bare chest. This simple act has several benefits, including:
- Maintains the baby's body temperature
- Slows baby's breathing and heart rate
- Relaxes and comforts baby
- Promotes bond between baby and parents
Another important benefit for moms is that skin-to-skin also helps improve milk supply. Spend time snuggling with your little one and soak up important benefits for you and baby.
Set up a comfortable pumping spot
Make pumping as comfortable as possible. "Find a quiet spot where you can lay out your pumping equipment," Schindler suggests. "Arrange supplies, including bottles and caps, so you're not reaching for anything. Have a snack and bottle of water ready and put out a picture of your baby. When you're comfortable, you will be able to relax, which ultimately helps your milk supply."
It's important for moms to know that supply levels naturally go up and down throughout the day and over the course of time.
"Try not to get too discouraged if you notice a drop in milk supply," Schindler says. "A lactation consultation can help get to the bottom of your supply issues and offer more tips to increase supply."
Through our highly trained lactation consultants and Pediatric Milk Lab, Children's Health is dedicated to supporting breastfeeding moms in caring for their children. See more tips for safely storing breast milk when pumping.