You’ve asked, I’m answering. Let’s talk exclusively pumping (EPing) today. Settle in, grab a cup of coffee, this one is a doozy on length.
Exclusively pumping: providing breast milk to an infant by using a breast pump only
You guys. Woof.
Pumping has been hands down the most challenging, tear-inducing, sacrificial thing I have ever done. I know that sounds SO dramatic in spite of our journey, but my year of EPing was hard. My inbox is routinely filled with questions regarding our journey and so, now, 2 months out from my last pumping, I *finally* feel mentally capable of sitting down to share our journey with you, and all the tips + tricks that worked for us for survival! I am not a medical professional, just someone sharing what worked and didn’t for me.
There isn’t nearly enough information out there for mommas who EP so please feel free to share this with anyone you think it may help. I felt a little lost without resources because I didn’t fit the breastfeeding by breast group which is why I felt it so important to spend the time to write this. This also may be incredibly helpful for women who are breastfeeding as there’s a lot of resources that help me with milk production, comfort, and weaning.
I need to preface with these important points:
1) Pumping does not make me a better mom. Providing breast milk for my kids doesn’t make me any more awesome than any other mom who loves and provides for her kids in whatever form that is. The term “fed is best” may seem cliché, but you guys, whatever way you feed your baby that keeps them thriving is all that matters.
2) Let’s not talk numbers. One of the most discouraging things to me in the pumping journey is the comparison. Momma’s are proud and flash how many ounces they pumped, or “joke” about overproducing and all it leaves is a momma on the other side of the screen who is struggling feeling less than. I will not talk ounces in this post because it doesn’t matter. I had enough milk to feed my children and that fact alone makes me feel so blessed. Whatever you produce is amazing. Do not compare yourself to anyone else’s numbers.
3) What worked for me may not work for you. Every mom is different. Every baby is different. Every circumstance, breast, pump, lifestyle, body, and goal is different. This post is simply to share what we did, what worked (and didn’t), and encourage you that if you are EPing, you’re not alone.
Let’s start at the very beginning.
Kirsten and Logan were born at 35 weeks after my water broke. I had no knowledge of breastfeeding despite the information that was spouted at us at our birthing class. All I knew is I somehow had to make my less-than-tiny breasts into a pancake and prevent my children from being suffocated by my chest.
Before your child arrives
Pumping was FOREIGN to me. I cannot tell you how long I sat at my kitchen table with my girlfriends looking at the million pump parts and asking WHAT IS THIS. Before your baby is due, the best thing you can do is call your insurance company and find out what is covered. I found out I could have one of three pumps purchased for me, or I could take a $XXX credit to rent a hospital-grade pump. I called rental place they told me about and found out it was $XX for me to rent a hospital grade pump a month.
Because I had heard how wonderful hospital grade pumps are at bringing in your milk, I decided to use the credit and rent one. My insurance company would NOT let me rent a pump prior to the children being born and so I needed to rely heavily on the lactation consultant department at my hospital.
I chose the Medela Symphony and I could not recommend it more strongly. I tried a few other kinds at the hospital while waiting and nothing compared to this glorious yellow queen.
Side note: even when looking at my friends pumps and examining all of their parts, I still had NO clue until I was 1:1 with my lactation consultant in post-partum care in the hospital and I asked the same question 400 times. Do not stress if this is foreign to you. You will figure it out.
For the hospital
I cannot stress enough how important it is to pack a hands free pumping bra, multiple nursing tank tops, and soothing gel pads in your hospital bag. I didn’t and had to have my sister and girlfriends make a run to Target for me. Once these things arrived, it was a game changer. Here are links to what I wished I had earlier:
Nursing Tank Top: Listed here on Amazon(I actually liked having a lift up nursing tank top because I could wear my hands free pumping bra underneath and felt more comfortable with a little tummy flow post partum vs the traditional spaghetti strap tank top)
Nursing Cardigan: I loved that I had a couple of cardigans in my hospital bag that could wrap around me where I could easily flap them up if a hospital staff members walked in. They are long enough in front so you have privacy and also SO cozy. Here’s one like the one I had (and used often!!!).
Old Navyalso has an awesome affordable selection of nursing tops and there are always coupons. Here’s a few faves that work great alone or under cardigans.
- Long sleeve double layer shirt
- Sleeveless Scoop Neck Tank
- Sleeveless Ruffle Tier Tank(I had one in every color)
At the hospital
Use your lactation consultant. Use them often. Get your partner involved. I cannot tell you how helpful it was to have Josh learning with me. Hands on. This is not the time to be shy about sharing your nipples with strangers. I was so exhausted that there were times I would have Josh and the consultant hand express me to attempt to bring my milk in while I slept sitting up. In the early days, my milk was MIA. Goodness it was nowhere to be seen. We ordered my pump after birth but it took a day or two to get there, so I was left to hand express and use a borrowed hospital pump (foreign to me, ask for help!). You guys, celebrate EVERY. SINGLE. VICTORY. I cannot tell you how helpful it was to have NOTHING to compare anything to. My sweet NICU team was amazing in being so thrilled for me when I would bring in a syringe that I worked on for 30 minutes that LITERALLY was less than a grain of rice. They would rub it on the babies lips and acted like I just produced the most milk they had ever seen a mother create. We were so thrilled. Josh would run in a teeny size of milk at 3 am and force whoever was working to rub K & L’s lips with it….sometimes there was only enough for one lip rub and we’d rotate who got it. THIS WAS MY MILK. Celebrate the victory. Use formula or donor milk if needed to supplement and be okay with it.
These are actual pictures from my early hospital days of pumping on day 4. I was SO proud.
Ask them if they have nipple cream or multi-use gel pads you can use while you are there so you don’t have to use your own … and stock up, wink wink.
Get used to hand expressing and pumping ALL THE TIME. We tried for a very short time to breastfeed, but they were so little and my chest was so large that I struggled and pumping was so much easier for me. There is NO SHAME in simply deciding breastfeeding by breast isn’t what you want to do. Whether it’s latch or something else, it’s okay. For me, pumping was easier, especially with twins so Dad could help out a lot more too.
It took my milk DAYS to come in. I had to supplement the whole time I was in the NICU (11 days) with donor milk. I texted every person I knew who breastfed when I first felt engorged because I was terrified of the pain and the hardness. They all suggested I just massage my chest and pump for 10-15 minutes to release some of the pressure. That wasn’t helping. Instead, I hooked myself up to my arrived hospital grade pump and fell asleep sitting up during a NICU shift change. I pumped for an hour. When I woke up, I felt SO much better and finally had some milk coming in. Everyone was shocked I pumped for so long … it worked for me, was totally worth it and wasn’t the last time in my pumping journey I pumped that long. Do what feels best for your chest. Seriously.
Also – we asked so many questions about the right size breastshields, aka the cone-looking things you attach to your chest. Turns out, the fit is SO important. My consultant was awesome and we literally just bought all of the sizes (tired brain, desperate) and I would try the sizes out. I started with a 24 on both, and by the end, ended with one side a 31 and the other side a 27. 3 months in, I needed a 31 on both. It’s okay to have different sizes for different breasts. Like moms and babies, no boob is the same. :)
At this point, I was pumping or hand expressing at least 20-25 minutes every 2 hours around the clock. It was exhausting and frustrating when I wasn’t producing, but I genuinely believe the act of sitting down, hooking myself up to the pump and just letting the suction pull and tug for 20 minutes, even with minimal coming out, was so helpful in eventually getting milk.
DRINK YOUR WATER. EAT YOUR FOOD. Never pump without a snack in front of you or a huge glass of water drank. This does make a huge difference no matter who you are.
Once you are home
First of all, this is hard. Know you are a rock star for attempting this. Yes, it is worth it! But if at any point, you find that you cannot handle it + also enjoy motherhood, please give yourself the freedom to say THIS ISN’T FOR ME! Your child(ren) above all need a happy mom, not one that is so stressed and exhausted she may burst. This isn’t a competition. This isn’t something you have to prove. This is about what works for YOU and your family.
That said, the best piece of advice someone gave me was don’t quit your worst day. Let logic and clarity help you make your decision to stop and not emotions. I was very thankful for that advice.
Now pump. It’s going to feel like you do it all the time. This is where the tears will come from, especially in the early days. I would pump at least 20 minutes (Set a timer) every 2.5 hours. (Don’t go too much over, although sometime it was closer to 25 minutes for me if I had a third letdown.) Newborn eat about 8-12 times in 24 hours so you want your pumping to mimic a feeding schedule. I pumped with every feeding. And when they started sleeping through the night, I still woke up to pump to keep up with their needs. Early on, I couldn’t manage multitasking so I would bottle feed babies with Josh and then pump. Once the months passed, I was able to multitask and pump while I fed. If you can’t do that, give yourself grace. Depending on your children, this may or may not be possible.
My tips for survival
- Take a good post-natal multi vitamin and if possible, use one that helps with milk production. A lot of times women stop taking their prenatal vitamins because they are no longer pregnant, but your child still needs vitamins through the breastmilk. Also, you could go through a vitamin drop deficiency by ending them too quickly. (I forgot in the hospital for 2 weeks and had horrible cracking lips.) I liked these two kinds and noticed improvement on my supply with them.Post-Natal Vitamin here with milk supplements and here is simply a milk support supplement that’s awesome if you have another multi-vitamin you take. (Suggested by a lactation consultant)
- Have many different pumping bras. You will likely leak and nothing is worse than having to wear a damp bra or a stinky one. While I love the Hands Free bra above, I also loved this sports bra for sleeping in and doing life around the house in. It does NOT provide awesome support for heavy chested women, but it is very comfortable and incredibly practical. I owned 5 of them and all of them now look like they went to war with me. The zip on hands free bra I had 2 of and it was great for when I needed to leave, wear a real bra and could quickly swap up my bra without an over-the-head bra change.
- Have a cup you love for water. I love these three and would rotate while they were dirty. My RTIC 30 oz tumbler, my 32 oz Hydoflask, and my hospital mug they sent me home with. :)
- In the early days, be okay to order a snack box to have by your pump. In the later months you may (or may not) be able to think ahead and have better snacks close by but something is better than nothing. My friend sent something like this when I got home and it was AMAZING when I couldn’t think. (ps – these are also great to order and leave out in your hospital room for the nursing staff …. they LOVED it.)
- Have something you love by your pump. If you love to read, stock up on a great book. If you like to scroll, make sure your phone is charged. Binge watch a show or close your eyes. Just make sure there’s something you like to do for the 20 minutes because it’s a lot and often. This is the time to splurge on Hulu or Netflix. The thoughts of Blueberry Belvita bars and a new chapter got me out of my warm bed more times than I can count.
- Have enough pump parts for an entire day. Yes, that’s right. The last thing you want to worry about is getting up at 3 am to pump and nothing being clean. We have 8 sets of pump parts which was helpful because we ran our sterilizer often enough where I was never in need. At least have enough to make it through an entire night without needing to wash a thing. Seriously, invest. It’s worth it. (Pump parts meaning breast shields, and connectors, valves, and membranes. Bulk packs are here – great deal!)
- Have a good resource to “ask” questions. I loved Kelly Mom. It saved me on numerous occasions.
- Pump 5 minutes past your letdown. Typically I would get a letdown right before I was about to stop, like 4 minutes into my last letdown … it was a good reminder that my body will keep producing if I keep trying! Even if you don’t get another letdown, it tells your body you’re trying to produce more milk.
- They say your milk will start to stabilize around 3 months. For me, I found that was closer to 4-5 and I don’t know why that was. So don’t get discouraged if things don’t see to be what you expected right away.
- Don’t stress and remember how important it is to sleep! When my milk finally stabilized, I cut down to 6 pumps a day – more during the day and then one middle of the night wake up. Yes I leaked like crazy overnight (reusable nursing pads for the win!) but my body began to adjust with time.
- For overnight pumps, make sure you are wearing something that is easy to pump in. There is nothing worse then being tired, cozy, and then having to swap out your pajamas for something pumping friendly. I typically slept in a nightgown (hot flashes!) and my sports pumping bra. Here’s a couple of my favorites:
Gap Maternity/Nursing Nightgown (I still sleep in this – its SO soft!)
Gap Maternity Soft Sleep Pantsexcellent for postpartum
Speaking of leaking, if you are looking for disposable pads, these ultimate ones were great for me and I suggest keeping them EVERYWHERE YOU MIGHT BE. Car, diaper bag, your partners car, your purse… it’s amazing how you find you need one in weird places.
I can’t recommend these Bamboobies reusable pads more. They are so soft, wash great, and really hold the milk in. The don’t rub your nipples in a painful way (Again, soft!). I have some sets of the regular one – but they are heart shaped and I found I could see the shape through my bra a little more than the overnight round ones.
This company Bamboobies also sells these amazing nursing pillows that you can warm or cool and they are SO soft and comfortable when your breasts are clogged, sore, or just need a little TLC after being tugged at all day. I find myself sending these to new moms all the time and everyone is incredibly grateful.
Things I never used and returned: a manual pump.
Things to make sure you bring with you if you pump on the go:
- covers for the bottles …. I forgot those a number of times. Throw a few extras in your purse just in case.
- sanitizing wipes or sterilizing bags, depending on how long you’ll be gone for.
- a cardigan just in case what you’re wearing doesn’t provide a ton of coverage. (I found the breastfeeding covers to be really annoying when pumping because either they are covering only the front half, or they are wrapped around you completely like a tube and it can get tricky and tight.
- a little cooler to keep your pumped milk.
Watch out for:
- Caffeine – this hugely affected my supply and it felt cruel that I had to monitor my consumption to feed the same children who made me so exhausted haha.
- Medications – especially allergy meds and decongestants. These items dry your mucus in your nose and throat right? Well, they have a really high likelihood of drying your milk too. I sniffled my way through the summer of 2017 and cursed hay fever regularly.
- Too little sleep – I know it seems insane to tell you to get up and pump throughout the night and tell you how important sleep is. At the end of the day, make sure you are getting sleep and if it means you only pump once at night, or nap all day, do what you need to do to take care of you. Your milk will thank you.
When its time to wean:
This was stressful for me. I had to break through a LOT of mental-games of seeing less milk being produced because I was cutting my time and pumps. What I first did was start to space out my pumps a little more. 6 times fell into 5 times. Then 4. Then I was sleeping through the night around 9 months (glorious!). Then 3. You can either space out pumps and see how your breasts are feeling or simply start to drop down the amount of time you are pumping. I was able to manage dropping pumps down to 3 without a significant issue other than leaking. That said, it took me 2 months to go from 6 pumps to 3.
In March I was able to drop to 2 times a day. I would get up at 6:30 before the kids got up and then would pump around 10 before we went to bed. The first few nights/week? Was very uncomfortable but that’s where my heating pads came in and hand expressing if I felt too full.
Dropping from 2 pumps to 1 to 0 took me from March to May. It was VERY challenging. I had to drop 1-2 minutes of pumping per session and do that for 4 days straight. Then I would drop another minute and give it a few days. Then another. Some day I felt so full I caved and pumped a full 20 minutes just to feel empty.
Eventfully though, with a lot of determination and a battle again the head game of “only” pumping 8 minutes, I was able to make progress. And then I pumped one more and at night, I didn’t feel as full. And I went to sleep, and then woke up and had to pump. But then a few days later, when I woke up, I still didn’t feel full. A few days later I did and had to pump a short time to relieve the pressure, but all in all, it stopped almost without warning.
During the weaning process, I found increasing my caffeine and decreasing my water helped my supply dry up a bit. I stopped my vitamins. I took a Sudafed when I got a cold. It did help. Also using peppermint oil will reduce your milk and I would roll a drop of little young living oil on my chest.
Warm showers also help during this time and will release a small let down in the relaxing heat but not enough to set you back, just bring you comfort.
And then it’s done.
As life absorbing as pumping was, I think my brain sort of blocks the fact that I spent that last year tied to a pump for nearly 4-5 hours a day. I am so thankful it’s done. It taught me so much about myself, selflessness and my strength. I learned to multitask and pump in the car. I sacrificed outings and get-togethers because it wouldn’t work with my schedule. It was hard, but worth it. The babies have about a month or two of milk left in the freezer and I feel sad knowing this journey will be coming to a full end soon. That said, it was a gift and I am thankful my body allowed me to do it. There are many who try EVERYTHING and it still don’t work, and that’s okay. You are still awesome.
And I can’t thank my husband, mom, sister, and mother-in-law (grandpas too!) enough for all of the times they sat with the babies so I could pump in quiet, free of multitasking attempts.
What questions do you have? Leave them in the comments and I will address them so everyone can engage!
Everything I have shared above I have purchased personally and learned by personal experience after trying a variety of options. The linked items above are affiliate links that do not impact my opinions whatsoever … Using my links are just a really simple way to support our family of four at no cost to you! Thanks in advance!
I am not a medical profession, doula, lactation consultant or anything other than a momma who is sharing what worked for her. Please consult a professional with any specific questions regarding your personal situation.