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Expressing and storing breast milk

6-minute read

Expressing is a way to get milk out of the breasts when a baby is not breastfeeding. There are only a couple of ways to express — by hand or by using a pump. If you’re only expressing occasionally, hand expressing or using a hand pump are cheaper options. If you need to express frequently, an electric pump may be a better option.

What is expressing and why would I need to express?

When a baby has been born prematurely, is unwell or can't suck effectively, drinking expressed breast milk (EBM) can be an alternative to breastfeeding. Some women express when their breasts are very full and uncomfortable, or their baby cannot attach and suck effectively.

Sometimes babies go through short periods of breast refusal. This can be distressing, especially when a mother is keen to continue breastfeeding. Expressing is one way of maintaining breast milk supply until the baby resumes breastfeeding.

Expressing can be a short-term solution to a breastfeeding problem, like trying to increase breast milk supply or relieve engorgement. When a mother returns to work, study or other commitments, expressing and offering expressed breast milk (EBM) is an option rather than offering formula.

How would I express my breast milk?

Hand expressing

  • First, wash your hands with soap and water and dry them.
  • Get a clean, sterilised container or bottle to collect your breast milk.
  • Try and relax, think about your baby so you can let-down and your milk flows. Gently role your nipple between your finger and thumb and massage your breasts.
  • Place your thumb and forefingers in a V shape on your breast, about 2 centimetres behind your nipple and gently squeeze.
  • Rotate the position of your fingers/thumb on your breast so all your milk ducts are emptied.
  • Try and mimic your baby's sucking rhythm and keep squeezing until you see milk coming from your nipple. Be patient, it can take time to let down and for the milk to flow when expressing.

Using a pump

  • Wash your hands and dry them well.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations on how to wash, sterilise and assemble the pump. Some pumps are dual action e.g. they express both breasts at the same time, others are a single design.
  • Have a trial run and practise using the pump so you get comfortable with it.
  • Start with using a low suction and then increase as you feel comfortable.
  • You could try expressing one breast while your baby is feeding on the other.

How do I store my breast milk?

You can store breast milk in the fridge or freezer in a clean lidded container or a breastmilk storage bag. Make sure the container or bag is well sealed so milk can't escape or take on the odour or taste of other foods.

Breast milk Room temperature Refrigerator Freezer
Freshly expressed into a clean container 6-8 hours (in a room 26℃ or cooler) or store in the fridge if you can No more than 72 hours and store in the back of the fridge 2 weeks in the freezer of a fridge/freezer combination — (-15℃). 3 months in the freezer with a separate door — (-18℃). 6-12 months in a deep freeze — (-20℃)
Thawed EBM (not warmed) 4 hours or less e.g. the next feed In the refrigerator for 24 hours Do not refreeze EBM which has already been thawed
Thawed EBM in warm water Don’t reoffer; throw out what the baby doesn’t drink Hold for 4 hours or until the next feed Don’t refreeze
When baby has started feeding Throw out what the baby doesn’t drink Throw out Throw out

5 important tips about storing breast milk

  1. Only add cold breast milk to cold. Cool your breast milk in the refrigerator before adding it to another lot of EBM.
  2. Write the date and time you expressed on the container — this will help you keep track.
  3. Use the oldest EBM first.
  4. Never refreeze EBM which has already been thawed and offered to your baby.
  5. Breast milk can be stored at room temperature for up to 6-8 hours, but ideally keep your EBM in a fridge where it can be stored safely for up to 72 hours.

What’s the safest way to defrost frozen breast milk?

If you have frozen breast milk, the safest way to defrost it is in the fridge. If you don’t have time and your baby is hungry, you can defrost the EBM in a jug of warm water or under a running tap.

What’s the best way to feed my baby expressed breast milk?

A bottle is the easiest way to offer EBM to a young baby. Sterilise a baby bottle and teat and offer the EBM when they are showing hunger signs and are keen to feed.

If your baby is used to breastfeeding they might need some support to suck effectively on the bottle. Be patient and calm as they learn what’s involved. Some babies refuse to suck on a teat but will accept EBM from a small cup or a teaspoon.

How do I clean my expressing equipment?

Hand wash using hot soapy water and rinse well. You could also use a dishwasher set on the hottest cycle. You don’t need to sterilise your expressing equipment as long as your baby was born at term and is healthy and meeting their milestones.

Learn more about cleaning and sterilising baby bottles and equipment.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: September 2021

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