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Expressing breastmilk is a very handy skill to have. And if you plan to express, it’s important to know about storing breastmilk safely for later use.
Breast pump and baby
 

Expressing breastmilk and storing breastmilk: the basics

Expressing breastmilk is when you take milk out of your breast.

You might want to express your breastmilk because your breasts feel swollen or engorged or because you want to have some breastmilk stored in the fridge or freezer for using at a later date.

Some women find it easy to express, and other women find it more difficult. It can sometimes take a while to learn how to express. 

Different women can express different amounts of breastmilk. It depends on many things, including your body, your baby’s last feed, your baby’s age and how often you express. If you can’t express much (or any) milk, check with your midwife, child and family health nurse, or lactation consultant to make sure you’re expressing correctly.

There are three ways to express:

  • by hand
  • with a hand-held pump
  • with an electric pump.
Most mums find expressing breastmilk easier if they’re in a comfortable, private place. Get yourself relaxed and comfortable, and have a glass of water handy to drink. Give yourself plenty of time too – especially when you’re first learning to express.

Expressing breastmilk by hand

Here are the basic steps for expressing breastmilk by hand.

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Gently massage your breast. Start from the top of your breast and stroke towards your nipple. Massage the underside of your breast too. Do this several times to ensure the whole breast is massaged. This helps improve your let-down reflex.
  • Place a clean plastic dish or a wide bowl under your breast, either between your legs or on a low table, leaving both your hands free. You might need a clean towel to catch any spills or for wiping slippery, wet fingers.
  • You can support your breast with one hand if you have large and heavy breasts.
  • Place your thumb and finger directly opposite each other, either side of and well back from your nipple.
  • Gently press inward towards the centre of the breast, until you feel the bulk of the breast. Expressing shouldn’t hurt.
  • Gently press finger and thumb towards each other using a rhythmic rolling movement. This will compress the ducts, and milk will flow out of your nipple. There might be only drops until your let-down reflex happens. After this, you should get sprays from the nipple with each squeeze.
  • Once the milk flow slows, move your fingers to a different position around the nipple and press again. This helps express more milk and empty all sectors of the breast. Change hands if your fingers get tired.
  • Repeat the process on the other breast. Stopping for a warm drink might help you relax before you repeat the process, because expressing milk can be tiring.
  • If you need more milk, change from breast to breast, or wait and try again later. 
If you’re planning on storing breastmilk in the fridge or freezer, you might want to use special breastmilk storage bags. You can buy them from pharmacies and other shops that sell baby stuff.

Expressing breastmilk with a hand-held pump

Hand-held breast pumps usually consist of a suction cup attached to a pump handle and collection bottle or container.

Just as with hand-expressing, the first step in expressing breastmilk with a hand-held pump is getting yourself relaxed and comfortable. This helps get your let-down happening in whatever way works for you. Gentle massage as described above is a good idea too.

Here are the next steps, when you’re ready:

  • Place the suction cup of the pump directly over your breast with your nipple centred.
  • Squeeze the pump handle gently and rhythmically – you might see only drops of milk until your let-down happens, and then it’ll spray.
  • Pump until your milk flow stops.

Expressing breastmilk with an electric pump

Electric breast pumps are much like hand-held pumps, except that you don’t have to do the pumping yourself. Attach the suction cup to your breast (or breasts, in the case of double pumps).

As with expressing breastmilk by hand or by hand-help pump, get comfortable and relaxed to start. This helps with your let-down.

Here are the next steps, when you’re ready:

  • Place the suction cup of the pump directly over your breast with your nipple centred.
  • Start with low suction and increase it to a level that’s comfortable for you.
  • Pump until your milk flow stops.

You can often get more milk by hand-expressing, even after the flow with the pump has stopped.

You can buy or hire electric breast pumps. The Australian Breastfeeding Association hires them out, as do some chemists. You’ll need to buy your own pump kit to attach to the electric pump.

There are many hand-held and electric pumps on the market. If you’re interested in using a pump to express, it might be a good idea to speak with your child and family health nurse or an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor. They can give you information to help you choose the right pump for your needs.

Guidelines for storing breastmilk

Breastmilk should be refrigerated or frozen after expressing.

Here are guidelines for how long you can store breastmilk at different temperatures and when you should use stored or frozen breastmilk.

Freshly expressed breastmilk
Put breastmilk into a clean, closed container or sealable plastic bag – that is, not into the same container as previously refrigerated or frozen milk. You can store breastmilk:

  • at room temperature (26ºC or lower) for 6-8 hours
  • in the fridge (4ºC or lower) for up to 72 hours – the best spot is the back of refrigerator where it’s coldest
  • in the freezer compartment inside a fridge for two weeks
  • in the freezer section of fridge with separate door for three months
  • in the deep freeze (-18ºC or lower) for 6-12 months.

Previously frozen breastmilk (thawed in the fridge but not warmed)
You can store breastmilk:

  • at room temperature (26ºC or lower) for four hours or less – that is, until the next feed
  • in the fridge for up to 24 hours (the best spot is the back of refrigerator where it’s coldest).

Do not refreeze previously frozen breastmilk.

Breastmilk thawed outside fridge in warm water
You can store breastmilk:

  • at room temperature (26ºC or lower) until the end of the feed
  • in the fridge for four hours or until the next feed.

Do not refreeze previously frozen breastmilk.

Baby has started to feed
You can store breastmilk at room temperature (26ºC or lower) only until the end of the feed and then throw away.

Write the date of expressing on the storage container or bag before you refrigerate or freeze the breastmilk.

Preparing expressed breastmilk for use

You can give your baby expressed breastmilk with a cup, spoon or bottle.

Warm your container of breastmilk by placing it in warm water. Use fresh breastmilk first if you have some, but if you’re using frozen breastmilk, you can thaw it by placing it in either cool or warm water.

Always shake the bottle or container gently, and test the temperature of the milk before feeding your baby.

Don’t use a microwave oven to thaw or warm the milk, because this destroys some of the components of breastmilk. It can also result in hot spots, which can burn a baby.

Cleaning equipment

All equipment used for expressing and storing breastmilk – such as bottles, bowls and other equipment – should be thoroughly washed.

Thoroughly wash equipment in warm soapy water, rinse well and air-dry or dry parts with clean paper towel. Store covered until next use.

If you’re using a pump, wash the parts of the pumping kit once every 24 hours.

In between expressing sessions within 24 hours, you can store the kit unrinsed and covered in the fridge. You can also store it rinsed and covered at room temperature.

This information applies for a normal healthy baby being fed his own mother’s breastmilk. If your baby is premature or sick, follow the guidelines given by the health professionals caring for your baby.

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  • Last Updated 16-06-2014
  • Last Reviewed 21-04-2014
  • Australian Breastfeeding Association (2012). Expressing and storing breastmilk. Glen Iris, Vic.: ABA. Retrieved March 31, 2014, from https://www.breastfeeding.asn.au/bf-info/expressing-and-storing-breastmilk.

    D’Amico, C., DiNardo, C., & Krystofiak, S. (2003). Preventing contamination of breast pump kit attachments in the NICU. Journal of Perinatal & Neonatal Nursing,17(2), 150-157.

    National Health and Medical Research Council (2012). Infant feeding guidelines. Canberra: NHMRC.