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Expressing and Storing Milk

Sara Walters
Carmarthen Wales UK
From NEW BEGINNINGS, Vol. 24 No. 4, July-August 2007, pp. 168-9

Some mothers never have to think about expressing milk. But if you are going to be away from your baby, milk expression is necessary skill to learn. How should you express: by pump or by hand? What happens if you can't get a lot of milk? How should you store your milk?

Choosing How to Express

How you express milk will depend on your situation. If you are regularly separated from your baby, or if there is a delay in breastfeeding after birth, then a pump may be your preferred option. As with most products, there is a myriad of types, ranging from hand operated, to small, motorized single pumps, to automatic double breast pumps. Your choice will depend on your needs, as well as availability and budget. Breast pump rental may be an option for you, too. Ask your local LLL Leader if they have suggestions for places that sell or rent pumps.

If, however, milk expression is a temporary requirement, perhaps to provide some milk while you are away from the baby for a short while, you may find hand expression a natural, convenient, and economic way to express milk. Hand expression is a learned skill. If you would like more information on hand expression, consider learning the Marmet Technique. This is a method formalized by lactation consultant and La Leche League Leader Chele Marmet. For more information, go to

Basics of Milk Expression

However you choose to express, many mothers find it challenging at first. Some are despondent that they don't seem to be able to express more than a few drops -- this is very normal. With practice and time, expressing can be easy and fruitful.

The amount of milk a woman is able to express depends on many factors, including the time of day and how relaxed or stressed she is. The following suggestions may help you have a let-down when you're expressing milk -- an important factor in this process, which is both psychological and physical.

• Express in a comfortable setting; avoid distractions or interruptions. Take your phone off the hook and ask those around you not to disturb you while expressing. If you're at home with older children, distract them with an activity that doesn't require your full attention.

• Focus your mind on what you have to do. Having a "pre-expression" ritual, such as drinking a cup of tea, snuggling under a cozy blanket (it helps to be warm), or taking a few cleansing deep breaths. If you're expressing at home, try taking a warm shower or applying warm compresses to your breasts beforehand.

• Many mothers find that trying to connect with their babies while pumping is especially helpful. Phoning your baby's caregiver to see how your little one is doing before you express may put you in the right frame of mind. Looking at a photo, or keeping a piece of your baby's clothing or blanket can help to stimulate the let-down reflex, too.

• Listen to music or read a magazine -- anything that helps clear your mind and lets your body work.

When to Express and How Often

When to express and how often depends on the age of baby and a mother's individual circumstances. If your baby is under six months and you are away from her for a long time, expressing about every three hours may be necessary to maintain your milk supply, and also to provide your baby with enough milk to feed her while you are away. Some mothers stockpile their milk at home, expressing milk in the morning before they leave for work. Mornings often yield the most milk. If your baby does not require a lot of milk while you are separated (perhaps because she is now eating other foods, for example) then you may only need to express once a day, and then only enough to relieve any feelings of fullness in your breasts.

How Much?

The dreaded question! Don't compare yourself to a bottle of artificial baby milk. Generally, breastfed babies take between two and four ounces at each feeding, and it's probably not a good idea to store your milk in greater quantities than four ounces.


Human milk is remarkably resilient due to its antibacterial properties, and stores well. It can look unsubstantial when compared to cow's milk, but looks are deceptive! It will normally separate into part watery substance and part tiny fat particles. Once mixed together, run the container under warm water to bring the milk to room temperature, whether frozen or refrigerated. Do not re-heat directly on the stovetop or in the microwave, as this may destroy some of the immune substances in human milk.

You can store your milk in either plastic or glass containers with fitted tops, or dedicated freezer milk bags. Remember to mark the date on the container, and to wash them with hot, soapy water, and rinse well; this applies to the pump, too. There is no need to sterilize. And of course, make sure your hands are clean before you express.

Should all moms express their milk?

Unfortunately, there are some popular child care books that suggest milk expression is a necessary part of breastfeeding. This is not the case. La Leche League believes that mother and baby need to be together early and often to establish a satisfying relationship and an adequate milk supply. Milk expression is only necessary if mother and baby are separated for some reason -- such as hospitalization or going back to work -- or to maintain the mother's milk supply if the baby is unable to nurse effectively. It may also be used to relieve engorgement, or to increase milk supply. Remember, though, that in these situations the best pump is the baby.

For more information on expressing and storing your milk, particularly if you want to explore your options, find your local La Leche League Leader at The following publications may also be useful:



Human milk can be stored:

  • At room temperature (66-72°F, 19-22°C) for up to 10 hours.
  • In a refrigerator (32-39°F, 0-4°C) for up to eight days.
  • In a freezer compartment inside a refrigerator (variable temperature due to the door opening frequently) for up to two weeks
  • In a freezer compartment with a separate door (variable temperature due to the door opening frequently) for up to three to four months
  • In a separate deep freezer (0°F, -19°C) for up to six months or longer.

Storage and cleaning guidelines apply to healthy full-term babies and milk that is being stored for home use rather than hospital use. Follow hospital guidelines if your baby is in hospital.

Remember that the fresher your milk, the better it is. Milk that is refrigerated will have more benefits than frozen milk. However, human milk is always the superior infant food.

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