When it comes to making parenting decisions, it’s not always clear cut what’s the best choice. How you feed your baby can feel like one of these gray areas.

During your pregnancy, you may have read about all the benefits of breast milk and feel strongly that you want to provide your baby with it. Do you need to exclusively breastfeed though? What about pumping — even exclusively pumping?

While we can’t make any feeding decisions for you, we’ve compiled some of the pros and cons of exclusive breastfeeding and exclusive pumping. We’ve also put together a few considerations and tips to help you choose the best feeding method for you and your baby.

Exclusively pumping — feeding your baby only pumped breast milk through a bottle or other alternative method — is perhaps less publicly discussed than exclusive breastfeeding, but many people choose this approach.

Why would they choose to do this? Well, some of the benefits of exclusively pumping include:

  • Flexibility. Exclusive pumping allows you the ability to do it on your own time schedule.
  • Reassurance. Feeding milk through a bottle allows you to know exactly how much milk your baby is consuming in a day.
  • Back-up milk. By adding in extra pumping sessions during the day, you can create a stockpile of some extra milk for occasions when you might want to have an alcoholic beverage or eat something that doesn’t agree with your baby’s stomach.
  • Avoiding pain. Pumping can offer a way to avoid breast discomfort due to poor latch, bites, or other issues.

Some examples of situations where exclusive pumping might be really useful include:

  • a premature baby
  • a baby who can’t latch
  • a baby with a cleft palate
  • when you and baby need to be separated for long stretches of time during the day due to work or illness
  • when breastfeeding is extremely painful

After hearing the benefits of exclusive pumping, you may be wondering why anyone would choose to feed their baby another way! Well, there are benefits to exclusively breastfeeding too. Some examples of these benefits include:

  • Less mess. Exclusive breastfeeding means not having a lot of bottles or pump parts to clean after each feeding session.
  • Improved milk nutrition. Breast milk nutrients match your baby’s needs especially well when your body is interacting with your baby in the close way that breastfeeding requires. Your breast responds to the baby’s saliva content, producing antibodies for viruses or bacteria to which the baby has been exposed.
  • Bonding time with your baby. Parents who exclusively breastfeed spend a lot of time holding and feeding their baby. The time and closeness promote a special bond between parent and child.
  • Always available. When you’re exclusively breastfeeding, there’s no need to worry about whether you have formula or pumped milk ready to feed your baby.
  • Free. Exclusive breastfeeding is free — no need to pay for pumps, storage bags, or formula.

Exclusively pumping seems to come with a lot of freedom, so why might some people not enjoy it?

  • Clean-up. With exclusive pumping there are lots of extra pump and bottle parts to wash and sanitize. Not only does this add up to plenty of work, but it can also take a lot of time (a valuable commodity when you have a little one!)
  • Letdown struggles. Sometimes milk doesn’t let down as quickly or as much with a machine. Pump suction is also not always as effective as a baby’s mouth at getting milk out of the breast. As a result, depending on the person, exclusively pumping can result in less milk production than breastfeeding.
  • Cost. Pumps can be expensive, and equipment like breast milk storage bags can add up.
  • Hassle. Entertaining a crying baby while pumping milk to put in their bottle can be a lot to ask!

And why do some people dislike breastfeeding exclusively?

  • Lack of flexibility. Exclusive breastfeeding means you can’t leave your baby for long stretches of time or around times they might want to eat.
  • Intake worries. Exclusive breastfeeding can leave some parents concerned since you’re not able to easily know exactly how much milk your baby has consumed.
  • Discomfort. Especially in the first few weeks, exclusively breastfeeding can cause pain in the breast and nipple area. While this should get better quickly, it can make the initial feeds difficult and be enough to turn someone off of breastfeeding.
  • Potential food and medication restrictions. Because certain medications, foods, and alcohol can transfer to your infant through breast milk, an exclusively breastfeeding parent may need to avoid consuming certain items. These dietary restrictions can be difficult to embrace.
  • Lack of sleep. Especially in the first weeks of your baby’s life, they’ll need to feed frequently. Being awake every 2 hours to ensure your baby has sufficient food can be hard mentally and physically after having just given birth. (It’s not that a bottle-fed baby needs less food. But if you’re pumping and storing milk, you may be able to get a partner to help with overnight feeds.)

When it comes to pumping and breastfeeding, it’s rarely necessary to rely only on just one style. There is a middle ground here — many parents use a combination approach, choosing to breastfeed sometimes and pump sometimes.

So, how do you know which method to use? The answer to this question will depend on your specific situation.

All things being equal, it’s encouraged to begin with breastfeeding exclusively. Once you’ve established a good breastfeeding relationship, you may want to introduce the bottle and pumping around weeks 4 to 6.

After that point, many people switch off between breastfeeding and pumped milk depending on scheduling, availability, and baby’s preferences.

There are many cases where it may be necessary to consider a different plan, though.

For example, if your baby needs to be separated from you immediately after birth for any reason, you may choose to pump in the beginning to ensure a good milk supply until it’s safe to introduce breastfeeding later.

Another example of a time when pumping would be encouraged earlier than 4 weeks is if a baby is losing a high percentage of their birth weight.

In these cases, a lactation specialist might recommend you pump after breastfeeding sessions to increase milk production and so you can collect supplemental milk to feed the baby.

When choosing a feeding plan, it can be useful to discuss your specific situation with a lactation consultant. They can work with you to determine a feeding plan that meets both your needs and your baby’s needs.

It’s important to remember that breastfeeding is a relationship that involves two people: you and your little one. If your current feeding plan isn’t working for either you or your baby, something needs to change.

When in doubt, your doctor or lactation consultant can help you explore different feeding options to make sure that your baby’s nutritional needs are being met.