Breast Care and Expressing Milk

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There are times when a mother will need to express (remove) milk from her breasts to save for later use. When you need to be away for a few hours or if your baby cannot breastfeed while he or she is in the hospital, you can express milk from your breasts. This prevents breast engorgement (swollen breasts) and ensures that milk will continue to be produced.  

Caring for your breasts will help to keep you comfortable and will help to make sure there is milk for your baby. 

How the Breasts Produce Milk

The breasts are made up of milk-producing glands, tubes called "ducts," and fatty tissue.The glands produce the milk. When a baby sucks, the milk flows through ducts to the nipple openings.

How to Care for Your Breasts

Breast Feeding Your Baby Can be Special
  • Wash your breasts with clear, warm water daily when you shower. Wear loose-fitting clothing to prevent cutting off the circulation which might cause your ducts to become clogged.
  • You may want to wear a well-fitting nursing bra to give support. A nursing bra allows you to uncover the breasts without removing the bra.
  • You may want to keep nursing pads (washable or disposable) or clean, folded cloths inside your bra to soak up drops of milk that may leak between feedings or expressions. Change pads when they get wet.
  • You do not need to wash your breasts before or after breastfeeding or expressing milk. Just let the breast milk dry on your breasts.

Breast Massage

When and How to Express the Milk

Express the milk as often as your baby would nurse if you were breastfeeding (8 times a day or every 2 to 3 hours). Some of these pumpings need to be during the night. 

Milk can be expressed with your hands (hand expression) or by pump. If using an electric or battery powered pump or a hand-operated breast pump, the amount of time needed to pump can vary. Usually 15-20 minutes per breast is enough. Many electric pumps are able to pump both breasts at once. (See Helping Hand HH-IV-85, Breast Milk for your Hospitalized Infant: Electric Breast Pump.) It takes time and practice to learn to express milk by any method. Do not be discouraged if you have trouble at first. It is easier to express milk when you are relaxed. 

Hand (Manual) Expression

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for 15 seconds.
  2. Start with a breast massage (Picture 2).
  3. Place your thumb on top and your forefinger under the nipple (Picture 3). 
  4. Gently push your finger and thumb back toward your chest (Picture 4).
  5. Squeeze gently in a “milking” motion to remove the milk (Picture 5). 
  6. Repeat the procedure, changing the position of your grasp on the breast so all areas of the breast are thoroughly drained. Repeat on the other breast.
  7. Express the milk into a container:
    • For well babies, express the milk into a clean container. Some women prefer to use a cup or bowl. 
    • If your baby is in the hospital, put the expressed milk into sterile containers that are provided.

Producing Milk

Safe Storage and Use of Expressed Milk

  1. Use only one container for each time that you express milk. Do not add newly expressed milk to a container that already has stored milk.
  2. Write important information on the label of the bottle:
    • For well babies at home, label the milk container with the date and time of the collection.
    • For hospitalized babies, write your baby’s name, medical record number, and the date and time of the milk collection. Also note any medicines you have taken in the past 24 hours.
  3. Refrigerate or freeze the expressed breast milk based on your baby’s feeding plan and if your baby is in the hospital. Follow these guidelines to know how long your breast milk can be stored and when it needs to be thrown away.

    Storage Guidelines for Breast Milk

    Refrigerator Refrigerator's Freezer Deep Freezer
    Well babies at home 5 to 7 days Up to 6 months 12 months
    Hospitalized babies 48 hours 3 months 12 months
  4. If you need to bring breast milk to the hospital, pack the milk with freezer packs in a cooler. When you arrive, give your breast milk to a staff member to store in the freezer or refrigerator. If your baby is in the NICU, Special Care Nursery or has a weakened immune system, bring only frozen or refrigerated milk to the hospital. Do not thaw milk before coming.
  5. Frozen milk can be thawed in three different ways. Thawing time will vary based one of the methods below:
    • Use a commercial bottle warmer. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions.
    • Place frozen bottle in hot tap water. Do not use boiling water.
    • Place frozen bottle in cold water in a refrigerator to thaw overnight.
    • Milk should not be refrozen once thawed. Thawed milk should be thrown away after 24 hours.
  6. Milk in stored containers can be combined right before feeding the baby if it is all at the same temperature
  7. Throw away any leftover milk in the bottle after feeding.
  8. Do not microwave breast milk! This can destroy the parts of the milk that protect your baby from illness and it could burn your baby’s mouth!

Breast Engorgement

Breast engorgement sometimes occurs when milk builds up in the breasts. It usually lasts only a day or two. Here are some things you can do:

  • Gently massage the breast to help the milk flow.
  • Express milk by hand or with a pump between feedings.
  • Stand in a warm shower or place warm, moist compresses on the breasts to provide some relief.
  • Put ice packs to the sides of your breasts for no more than 20 minutes after pumping or breastfeeding.
  • Loosen your bra if it is too tight.

When to Call the Doctor

Call your doctor if:

  • Your breasts stay swollen or painfully engorged after expressing milk several times.
  • Your breasts feel hot when you touch them.
  • Your breast is reddened.
  • Your nipples are sore, cracked or bleeding.
  • You develop a fever higher than 101°F.

If you have any questions, please call the Nationwide Children's Hospital lactation consultant at (614)722-5228.

Breast Care and Expressing Milk (PDF)

HH-IV-61 3/82, Revised 2/16 Copyright 1982, Nationwide Children's Hospital