Expressing milk means using your hands or a pump to get milk out of your breast so that you can store it and feed it to your baby at a later time.
You may need to express milk for a number of reasons including:
- you have to be away from your baby, because your baby is ill or premature, or because you’re going back to work or study
- your nipples are damaged and attachment is painful
- your milk supply is low and expressing will stimulate milk production
- your breasts feel uncomfortably full or if your baby isn’t sucking well but you still want to give them breast milk
Expressed breast milk can also be used with your baby’s first solid foods.
You can express milk by hand or with a breast pump. Different pumps suit different women, so ask for advice or see if you can try one before you buy it. Always make sure that the container or pump is clean and has been sterilised before you use it.
Expressing by hand
You may find it easier to express milk by hand than to use a pump, especially in the first few days. It also means you won’t have to buy or borrow a pump.
The following suggestions may help:
- Before you start, wash your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water, and gently massage your breast.
- Cup your breast just behind your areola (the darker part of your breast).
- Squeeze gently, using your thumb and the rest of your fingers in a C shape. This shouldn’t hurt (don’t squeeze the nipple directly as you’ll make it sore and unable to express).
- Release the pressure then repeat, building up a rhythm. Try not to slide your fingers over the skin. At first, only drops will appear, but keep going as this will help to build up your milk supply. With practice and a little time, milk may flow freely.
- When no more drops come out, move your fingers round and try a different section of your breast, and repeat.
- When the flow slows down, swap to the other breast. Keep changing breasts until the milk drips very slowly or stops altogether.
- If the milk doesn’t flow, try moving your fingers slightly towards the nipple or further away, or give the breast a gentle massage.
- Hold a sterilised feeding bottle or container below your breast to catch the milk as it flows.
Sometimes your baby may need extra milk or find it hard to feed from your breast. In this case, your midwife may suggest that you give your baby some expressed milk in a cup.
This should be done under the supervision of a midwife until you feel confident enough to avoid the risk of your baby choking.
Storing breast milk
Breast milk can be stored in a sterilised glass or plastic containers, including sealable plastic bags. Always use a new container rather than add to previously refrigerated or frozen milk.
You can then store your milk:
- in the fridge for no more than 72 hours (3 days) at 5°C or lower
- for two weeks in the ice or freezer compartment inside a fridge
- for 3 months in the freezer section of refrigerator with a separate door
- for 6 to 12 months in a deep freezer
Breast milk must always be stored in a sterilised container. If you use a pump, always clean and sterilise it before and after use.
Any expressed milk not used within 2 days should be frozen. Remember to put the date and time the milk was expressed and use the oldest milk first.
Defrosting frozen breast milk
If you have frozen your milk, defrost it in the fridge before giving it to your baby. Once it’s defrosted, use it straight away. Milk that’s been frozen is still good for your baby and better than formula milk. Don’t re-freeze milk once it’s thawed.
Warming breast milk
You can feed expressed milk straight from the fridge if your baby is happy to drink it cold. Or you can warm the milk to body temperature by placing the bottle in lukewarm water.
Don’t use a microwave to heat up or defrost breast milk as it can cause hot spots, which can burn your baby’s mouth.
If your baby is in hospital
If you’re expressing and storing breast milk because your baby is premature or ill, ask the hospital staff caring for your baby for advice on how to store it.
The Australian Breastfeeding Association has published information on breastfeeding a premature baby at www.breastfeeding.asn.au.
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Last reviewed: March 2020