There are many reasons a nursing mother may need to use a breast pump. Some women are returning to work, while others just want the flexibility that bottle-feeding can offer.

Whatever your reason, it’s important that you understand how to use a breast pump. Just like the trial and error that went into learning how to breast-feed, using a breast pump can take a bit of practice.

Here’s how to use a breast pump correctly.

What kind of breast pump should you buy?

The first thing you’ll need to successfully pump breast milk is — naturally — a breast pump. With so many pumps available, you’ll need to decide between options like electric or manual. There are also single or double pumps.

Ask yourself these questions before deciding which pump will work best for you:

  • How often do you expect to use the pump?
  • How fast do your pumping sessions need to be?
  • What does your budget allow?

A hand pump may be ideal if you’re considering a pump just for flexibility, or you’ll only be away from your baby occasionally. An electric pump is recommended if you’re going back to work or will be away from your baby for more than a few hours.

Usually, pumping takes about 10 to 15 minutes for each breast. If you’re pumping during a break at work, for example, an electric double pump will cut pumping time in half because you do both breasts at the same time.

Electric pumps normally cost significantly more than manual models. Look for breast pumps at different stores and online to compare pricing. And remember, you usually get what you pay for: Less expensive models may break down or cause injury to your nipples. Buy the best quality pump for your needs.

You might also consider renting a hospital-grade electric breast pump. These are usually available from hospitals or medical supply stores.

While many health insurance plans cover the cost of either buying or renting, you’ll need to buy the pumping kit, or the equipment that attaches the pump to your breast.

How to use a manual breast pump

manual pump

To start, wash your hands and clean your breast pump components. Usually, a manual breast pump includes the pump, a breast shield, and a bottle.

Read the instruction manual to assemble your breast pump. Then follow the steps below.

  1. When you’re ready to begin pumping, find a quiet place. Try to relax, and think about your baby. You can also try looking at a picture of your baby, or smelling a baby blanket. This can help trigger the hormones for releasing your breast milk.
  2. Place the cone-shaped shield over your breast, making sure it’s centered over the nipple, and gently squeeze the handle. This will create suction to express your milk. It could take a few minutes before the milk begins to flow.
  3. Once it does, try adjusting the rate of pumping to make it inconsistent, just like the motions of nursing your baby.
  4. You can alternate from side to side every five minutes or so, or empty one side first. Try to make sure that both breasts have between 10 and 15 minutes of pumping time each.
  5. When you’re finished pumping, unscrew the bottle and put the milk in a storage container. It can safely stay at room temperature for six to eight hours.
  6. Wash the components that touched your breast or breast milk using warm, soapy water. Allow them to air-dry. Do not use the dishwasher for breast pump parts.

You Asked, We Answered

  • How long can you safely store breast milk for?
  • You can refrigerate breast milk for up to five days. If you freeze it in a deep freezer, it will keep for six months to a year.

    - Debra Rose Wilson, PhD, MSN, RN, IBCLC, AHN-BC, CHT

How to use an electric breast pump

electric breast pump

Using an electric breast pump is very similar to using a manual model, with a few notable differences.

You’ll begin in the same way, by washing your hands, sanitizing components for your breast pump, and reading the manual. Then follow the steps below.

  1. Find a quiet, private place where you can relax and think about your baby. Then, place the shields over one breast, or both breasts if you’re using a double pump. Be sure the shields are centered over the nipple. Incorrect placement can cause damage from suction.
  2. Turn on the breast pump, beginning with the lowest setting. Your milk should begin to flow in the first few minutes. Some models will automatically adjust in speed. But if yours doesn’t, try varying the speed to simulate your baby’s sucking motions. It’s important to find a speed that you find comfortable. Just like breast-feeding, pumping shouldn’t be painful.
  3. The benefit of an electric breast pump is the freedom to do other activities at the same time! You might listen to music, check email, or read.
  4. When your milk flow slows and your breasts feel soft and empty, turn off the pump and remove the breast shields.
  5. Prepare the breast milk for storage.  
  6. Wash the components of the pump that touched your breasts or milk. Allow them to air-dry.

Next steps

Whether you use a manual or an electric breast pump, remember that it can take time to become efficient. Don’t expect your milk to start flowing immediately. Also try to find something distracting or think about your baby to occupy your mind. That can help your body relax, which makes the process easier.

Compared to a pump, your baby is far better at removing and stimulating milk.

If you’re struggling, ask a lactation consultant for help.