By Raising Children Network
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Like breastfeeding, expressing breastmilk is a skill you need to learn. Some women find it easy, and others can have a bit of trouble getting the hang of it. If you plan to express, you also need to know how to store your expresssed breastmilk properly.

The basics

Expressing breastmilk is when you draw milk out of your breast. You might want to express your breastmilk because your breasts feel engorged or because you want to have some breastmilk stored in the fridge or freezer for using at a later date.

There are three ways to express:

  • by hand
  • with a hand-held pump
  • with an electric pump.
Most mums find expressing easier if they’re in a comfortable, private place. Have a glass of water ready, and put on some relaxing music. If you’re feeling stressed about expressing, it can be more difficult.


Here are the basic steps for hand-expressing.

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water.
  • Gently massage the 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 response.
  • 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 to store the 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 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 with a hand pump is getting yourself relaxed and comfortable. You also need to get your let-down happening in whatever way works for you. Gentle massage as described above is a good idea too.

When you’re ready, you:

  • place the suction cup of the pump directly over your breast or nipple
  • 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 slows down.

Expressing with an electric pump

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

As with expressing by hand or by hand-help pump, you need to be comfy and relaxed to start. You also need to get your let-down happening.

When you’re ready, you:

  • place the suction cup of the pump directly over your breast or nipple
  • start with low suction and increase it to a level that’s comfortable for you
  • pump until your milk flow slows down.

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 maternal and child health nurse or an Australian Breastfeeding Association counsellor. They can give you information to help you choose the right pump for your needs.

Storing breastmilk

The table below gives you a guide to how long you can store breastmilk at different temperatures and when you should use stored or frozen breastmilk.

Breastmilk Room temperature Fridge Freezer
Freshly expressed into a closed container. Zip lock freezer bags should not be used to store breastmilk. Store 6–8 hrs (26ºC or lower). If refrigeration is available store milk there. Store for 3–5 days (4ºC or lower). Store in back of refrigerator where it’s coldest.

Store for:

  • 2 weeks in freezer compartment inside fridge
  • 3 months in freezer section of fridge with separate door
  • 6-12 months in deep freeze (-18ºC or lower).
Previously frozen – thawed in the fridge but not warmed 4 hours or less (that is, the next feed) Store for 24 hours. Do not refreeze.
Thawed outside fridge in warm water Until the end of the feed Hold for 4 hours or until the next feed. Do not refreeze.
Baby has started to feed Only until the end of the feed, then throw away Throw away. Throw away.

 * From the National Health & Medical Research Council (2003), Australian dietary guidelines for children and adolescents incorporating the infant feeding guidelines for health workers, Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, p. 381.

Preparing expressed breastmilk for use

You can give your baby expressed breastmilk with a cup, spoon or bottle. You should clean and prepare your feeding equipment as you would for a bottle-fed baby. You can read more in our article on how to bottle-feed.

Warm your container of breastmilk by placing it in warm water. 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. If you’re using a pump, wash the parts of a pumping kit once in each 24 hours.

Thoroughly wash equipment in warm soapy water, rinse well and air-dry or dry parts with clean paper towel. Store covered until next use. In between expressing sessions within 24 hours, the kit can be stored covered in the fridge.

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  • Last Updated 20-01-2012
  • Last Reviewed 20-01-2012
  • Australian Breastfeeding Association (2009). Expressing and storing breastmilk. Retrieved August 4, 2011, from

    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 & Medical Research Council (2003). Australian dietary guidelines for children and adolescents incorporating the infant feeding guidelines for health workers. Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia. Retrieved September 15, 2011, from