Breast expressing milk through a pump

Expressing milk can take time to learn. Find out how to express in neonatal care and how to look after yourself while expressing.

Expressing means collecting breast milk which you can store and feed to your baby later. You can express milk by hand or with a breast pump, which can be electric or manual.

Expressing can be helpful:

  • If your baby is not well enough or strong enough to feed from the breast straight away
  • So that both partners or others are able to share feeding
  • If you are too sick to feed your baby from the breast
  • If you cannot be near your baby and want to establish a good milk supply
  • If your baby has difficulty latching on to the breast, but you still want to give them your breast milk.

If your baby is not able to breastfeed straight away, the staff at the hospital will help you to express (collect) your breast milk as soon as possible after your baby is born. This means that your baby will still get the benefits of breast milk until they are ready to feed from the breast or bottle, as it can be given to them by a feeding tube.

It is important to express in the way that is most comfortable and convenient for you.

A small amount of milk is produced in the first few days after a baby is born. This milk is called colostrum, and is often thicker and more yellow in colour than breastmilk. Colostrum is really important for your baby. It helps to boost your baby’s immune system, protect them from infections and helps them grow.

Some parents are worried that they are not producing enough milk in these first few days. This is normal – most parents start by expressing less than 1ml of milk at a time. This will increase gradually the more times you express. Around two to four days after giving birth, you will notice your milk becoming more white and your breasts might feel fuller. This is often referred to as your milk ‘coming in’.

Later on, the amount of milk you express may change depending on the time of day and how you feel.

After expressing your milk, the milk can be kept in the fridge or be frozen and stored until your baby is ready to have feeds. We have some more information about how to store breast milk at the bottom of this page.

Your milk is best suited to your baby’s needs, but sometimes premature or sick babies need more nutrients than are provided in breastmilk alone. If this is the case for your baby, your baby’s doctor may prescribe a preterm fortifier (which is usually a powder made from cow’s milk) to go in your milk. This will provide more nutrients that will help with your baby’s growth and bone health.

Many parents tell us that expressing can feel like a big pressure. It is important not to be too hard on yourself if you are not able to express a lot of milk in the early stages. No matter how much or how little you can express, your baby will benefit.

Many parents find comfort in expressing as it is something positive and important they can do for their baby. Try not to compare the amount you are expressing with others, as they may have faced different challenges or situations to you.

Expressing breast milk can also take time to learn. The staff looking after your baby will give you support and practical help with this. Speak to your neonatal nurse, feeding specialist or midwife for more support.

In this section, we have more specific information about:

If you have any questions about expressing or are not sure what to do, you should always ask questions or seek more support. Most units will provide specific support with expressing, and your neonatal nurse will be happy to help with any questions that you have.

How often should I be expressing milk for my baby?

It is important to start expressing milk as soon as possible after your baby is born – ideally within two hours. It is recommended you express frequently to keep your milk supply up. To begin with, this is around eight to ten times in 24 hours, including at least once at night. This is because breast milk is produced on a demand and supply system, so you are likely to produce less milk overall if long periods of time are left between expressing.

In time you will find what works best for you. You may find that your milk flow responds to a fixed routine and will trigger a let-down reflex (see below), which will make it easier to express. This might include actions when you prepare to express, such as removing equipment from the steriliser, or putting the pump together.

The let-down reflex

When you express milk, you may notice tingling or prickling in your breasts and nipples, or a feeling as if the milk is rushing in to fill them. This is called the let-down reflex (it is sometimes called the milk ejection reflex). During the let-down reflex, a hormone called oxytocin is released, which helps with milk flow. This takes a few minutes to appear at first, but later it will happen in a few seconds.

The let-down reflex feels different to different women. Some mothers describe a slight pain and some mothers have no sensations at all. Your body may respond to certain things you do, which can trigger your let-down reflex. For example, it is normal for the let-down reflex to happen in response to having a warm bath or shower, or to breast massage (see below). It can also happen in response to being close to your baby, hearing your baby cry or having a picture or something close by that smells of them.

Staying as relaxed as possible and having skin-to-skin contact with your baby can all help to trigger the let-down reflex. Taking some deep breaths and concentrating on your breathing can help with this. It will also help to express at your baby’s cotside if this is possible, so you can be close to your baby. Speak to the staff looking after your baby about this.

Gentle breast massage

Breast massage before expressing can help to trigger the let-down reflex and stimulate your milk flow. You can do this by gently stroking, rolling, kneading, and tapping your breasts with warm hands before hand expressing and/or using a breast pump. You should do this for at least two minutes. Breast massage during expressing can help to drain your breasts.

Looking after yourself when expressing

Expressing milk for your baby can be a great way for parents to feel more empowered and in control of their baby’s care. Many mothers also tell us how difficult and exhausting it can be to express, especially at night. This can be a particularly difficult experience if their baby is not with them.

It can be a very stressful time, but it is important that you try to stay as relaxed as possible when expressing, as this helps with the let-down reflex and milk flow. Some research has shown that higher stress levels may contribute to the delay of milk production. Some parents find that having a photograph or something that smells of their baby nearby when expressing helps. It may also help to distract yourself by doing something like reading a book or watching TV when you express. Listening to soothing music, meditation or taking time to focus on your breathing may also help you to relax.

Partners can help with expressing. For example, they can offer encouragement, help you to relax, or get equipment ready.

It is not unusual to find feeding your baby a difficult experience. In our survey of over 100 parents, over 60% said that their mental health got slightly or significantly worse during the experience of feeding their premature or sick baby. It is okay to find the experience difficult, no matter your situation. Every parent will have a very different experience of neonatal care.

It is important to talk to someone if feeding your baby is having an impact on your mental health. This could come from your feeding specialist, neonatal nurse, midwife, doctor, partner, or friends and family. We have lots of information about the impact having a premature or sick baby can have on your mental health, and where you can get support.

My top tips for expressing on the neonatal unit – Elizabeth’s story

Elizabeth had her heart set on breastfeeding. When Paisley arrived early, these plans changed and she had to learn to express milk instead.
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How to store expressed milk safely

You can store milk if your baby is unable to drink it at the time it is expressed. It is very important that expressed milk is stored safely. This is something that partners can be involved with. On the neonatal unit, breast milk is stored in fridges and freezers that only store infant milk.

Many units supply sterile disposable bottles and labels for you to use. You should label each container with your baby’s name, the date and time of collection.

If you will be using your breast milk within 48 hours of expressing, you should refrigerate it. If you are at home, breast milk that has recently been expressed will keep in a refrigerator for 48 hours (24 hours if it is defrosted). The breast milk should be stored at the back of the fridge and not in the fridge door. This is because the temperature in the door compartments goes up and down when the fridge is opened and closed.

If you will not be using your breast milk within 48 hours of expressing, it should be frozen. Milk can be frozen for up to 6 months in a home freezer. If you are freezing your milk, always leave at least one centimetre of free space at the top of the milk container. This is because milk will expand when frozen.

If you are on the neonatal unit, ask the unit staff about the best way to safely refrigerate and freeze milk. Different units may have different guidelines.

Once your milk is defrosted, it will need to be used within 24 hours. Try to use small containers to freeze your milk so that no milk is wasted. Defrosted milk may have a slightly soapy or sour smell, but this will not be harmful to your baby.

Fortified breast milk that has been supplemented with additives should be used with the following one to two feeds. It is not suitable for freezing and defrosting.

Talk to the hospital staff looking after your baby for more guidance on storing and defrosting breast milk.

Talk to the hospital staff looking after your baby for more guidance on storing and defrosting breast milk.