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How do I use a pump?
Q: I'll be going back to work soon and want to continue to breastfeed. I want to know how to use a breast pump and how often you use one when going back to work.
A: Cynthia, it's wonderful for you and your baby that you're planning to continue breastfeeding when you return to work. Breast milk is the best nutrition for your baby, and it helps protect your baby from illnesses he will be exposed to in child care. Continuing to breastfeed will also help preserve the close physical contact and bonding with your baby, which is especially important as you'll be spending less time together.

Contact your supervisor or the human resources department to ask about options for returning to work after maternity leave. Ask about extended maternity leave; flexible scheduling for work; on-site child care (where you can visit to breastfeed your baby); bringing the baby to work; and private breastfeeding/pumping rooms, pumps, breastfeeding classes or lactation consultants through work. Some states have laws requiring employers to provide accommodations for breastfeeding mothers, while some employers voluntarily provide benefits.

There are several different kinds of breast pumps to choose from: small hand-operated pumps, small battery-operated and electric pumps, and full-size electric pumps. They work by placing a funnel over your nipple and breast and applying suction to pump out your milk. This is not painful. Some pump one breast at a time; others pump both breasts at the same time. To choose a pump, you'll need to consider cost, how portable it is, how easy and quick it is to use and the noise level. The small hand-operated and battery/electric pumps are the least expensive and most portable. Some of the battery/electric pumps are quiet and some are not. The full-size electric pumps are more expensive (they can be purchased or rented) and less portable, but more efficient and quicker to use, and generally quiet.

Learning how to use a breast pump depends on which style of breast pump you choose. You may call a local lactation consultant or contact La Leche League (visit www.laleche.org) for information about pumps and how to use them. Also talk with friends, family members and colleagues who have used breast pumps. Once you select a breast pump, follow the manufacturer's directions carefully.

You can start pumping your breasts a couple of weeks before going back to work to learn how to do it and to start building up a supply of breast milk. A good time to pump is after your morning breastfeeding session when your milk has already let down and your baby has finished feeding.

Once you start work, you can figure out a pumping schedule that works best for you. This will depend on how old your baby is, how often he is feeding, how much he takes, how much milk you can pump each time, how much time you can or want to devote to pumping during your work day, and whether you'll also give your baby formula if there's not enough stored breast milk. Some mothers pump at work on the schedule that their baby would be feeding; and others choose to pump just once at lunch. To help keep up your milk supply, it's best to pump more frequently. Also be sure to drink plenty of fluids, get enough rest and breastfeed frequently when you're home with your baby in the morning, evenings and weekends.

General pumping guidelines:
  • Wash your hands before pumping.
  • Use clean covered containers or special breast milk bags.
  • Find a private room. Try to relax so your milk will let down easier. Some mothers look at a photo of their baby to help the milk let down.
  • Label the milk with the date and time you pumped it.
  • Refrigerate or freeze the milk right after pumping. If you transport the milk from work to home, carry it in an insulated bag or cooler/chest with an ice pack. Breast milk can be safely preserved in the refrigerator up to 72 hours, but it's best to use it within 24 hours. If you don't plan to use it within 24 hours, you can store it in a regular freezer attached to a refrigerator up to one month, or in a zero-degree freezer for three to six months.
  • Thaw frozen breast milk in the refrigerator or in a bowl of warm water. Don't microwave breast milk as it can destroy some of the proteins and vitamins, and it can also get too hot and severely burn your baby's mouth.
Karen Sokal-Gutierrez M.D., M.P.H. Pediatrician