Why Some Moms Swear By Hand Expression + Tips and Tricks to Get Started

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What Is Breastfeeding Hand Expression?

When you think about breastfeeding, a cozy image of a mother and baby nursing likely comes to mind. Or perhaps your immediate thought is of a woman attached to a breast pump collecting milk for her return to work. One often-overlooked technique for collecting breast milk is called hand expression. This is when a woman squeezes her breast to manually express milk (keep reading for how-to tips). Hand expression offers numerous advantages like convenience and portability. Here, we’ll cover how to hand express milk and answer common questions like how to hand express colostrum and does hand expression increase milk supply? Keep reading for tips and tricks to make sure you’re set up for breastfeeding success.

The Benefits of Breastfeeding Hand Expression

Many women find the main benefit of hand expression is its convenience and that it is useful to stimulate milk production if you want to increase your supply and provide milk for your baby. However, there are several other benefits to know about.

Hand Expression Can Fix a Clogged Duct

Understanding how to hand express effectively is essential for releasing a clogged milk duct. A clogged milk duct occurs when breast milk can’t flow because the duct transporting the milk is blocked or plugged, causing a red, tender, and painful lump in your breast. It’s possible to treat a clogged duct at home with hand expression. However, if left untreated, clogged ducts can lead to an infection called mastitis that requires antibiotics.

Hand Expression Can Regulate Oversupply

Breastfeeding and regulating your supply can be challenging and stressful for many mothers, whether you’re dealing with a low supply or an oversupply. Pumping is ideal for relieving fullness, but pumping too much or for too long can signal your body to produce more milk. An oversupply of breast milk can be uncomfortable for both mother and baby. This is where hand expression can help: It can offer relief from the full feeling without removing as much milk as an electric pump.

Hand Expression Is Convenient and Portable

Insurance companies are required to cover the cost of an electric breast pump but there are times when hauling a pump isn’t convenient, you don’t have access to an electrical outlet, or you’re away from your baby unexpectedly and need to nurse or pump. While using an electric breast pump will almost always yield a larger volume of milk, hand expression is a convenient and complementary option for times when you don’t feel like dealing with the pump or don't have one around.

Thankfully, breast pump technology has come a long way, evolving from large, clunky contraptions to sleek and discrete options, but they still require a bit of a lift and prep to pump on the go. Hand expressing breast milk is technology- and parts-free and only requires a container to store breastmilk (if you wish to keep it for a bottle feed later).

Hand Expression Can Help Increase Breast Milk Supply

If you’re pumping to boost your supply, consider adding a few minutes of hand expression to the end of a pumping session. This can work to empty your breasts fully and might yield another full or half ounce of milk.

Hand Expressing Before Birth

By the end of your second trimester of pregnancy (aka around week 27), your body is fully capable of making breast milk. However, the first milk your body makes is not what you might typically picture when you think of breast milk. It’s a thick, yellowish substance called colostrum. Colostrum is loaded with nutrients and other key substances that help your baby’s burgeoning immune system.

Because your milk can take several days to come in, colostrum is a breastfed baby’s main source of nutrition during the first few days of life. But don’t worry if it doesn’t seem like a lot because filling your baby doesn’t take much. At birth, their stomach is about the size of a toy marble (1 or 2 teaspoons) and gradually increases to the size of a ping-pong ball (about 2 ounces) by day 10.

To prepare for the early days of baby’s life, some mothers might start to harvest colostrum via hand expression before giving birth. It’s possible that you may even notice a natural leaking of the yellowish substance. Typically, colostrum can be expressed around week 37 of pregnancy with your healthcare provider's approval, since it carries risks of preterm labor and kick-starting contractions.

The process of how to hand express colostrum is the same as how to hand express milk, which we will cover below. Because colostrum is so thick, it typically cannot be expressed with an electrical pump.

Colostrum storage looks a little different than breast milk storage. But if your doctor or healthcare provider gives you the green light, you’ll want to know how to store this liquid gold. First, it needs to go in a sterile vessel—many women opt to use a syringe since the volume of hand expressed colostrum is so low. Colostrum can be kept in the refrigerator for two or three days and then should be stored in the freezer, where it will be good for at least three months.

Related: Learn the dos and don’ts of breastmilk storage.

Tips for Getting Started with Hand Expression

  1. Preparation Wash your hands with soap and warm water or use a hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. Next, find a comfortable spot to sit and make sure you have a clean container to collect the milk.
  2. Stimulate milk flow Lean forward slightly (gravity is your friend) and begin to massage your breast to help stimulate your milk.

Tips and Tricks for Successful Hand Expression

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) offers a nice visual how-to as you learn about expressing breast milk by hand. These tips will help, too.

  1. Use your thumb and fingers to form the letter C around your nipple, with your thumb above and fingers 1 to 2 inches below.
  2. Press your fingers and thumb back toward your chest.
  3. Gently compress your fingers and thumb together.
  4. Following a ‘press, compress, release’ pattern, continue to express the milk or colostrum until you’re ready to switch to the other side.

Remember that practice helps, and there is a learning curve, so give yourself grace. Seek support from a lactation consultant, breastfeeding support group, or connect with other moms if you’re struggling.

If you find that your little one is dealing with painful gas, reach for Infants’ Mylicon Gas Relief Drops. They work to gently break gas bubbles down so your baby can naturally release them by burping or tooting and are safe for even the newest of newborns. You can use the enclosed dropper to slowly dispense liquid into baby’s mouth or mix it with breast milk or formula. See the package instructions for directions for use and mixing guidelines.

Up next, learn how to increase your breast milk supply.


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