All Pumped Up (But no let-down)

Pumping

Many mothers, for many reasons pump during their breastfeeding experience.  Some pump occasionally and others pump full time.

Reasons why a mother may pump milk for her baby include:

  • Leaving her baby with a caregiver for a short or extended period of time
  • Having a baby in the NICU—Neonatal Intensive Care Unit—at the hospital
  • Relieving engorgement or assisting with plugged ducts
  • Giving extra milk to a milk bank due to oversupply or after the loss of her baby
  • Inducing a milk supply for an adopted baby

Let’s face it; a breast pump is not quite as sweet, cute, cuddly or warm as your baby!  Many mothers experience a difficult time having a release of milk—a let-down—when it comes time to pump, even if they have a full, robust milk supply and no issues feeding directly at the breast.

What is a mother to do if she has a slow or no let-down while pumping?

Well, thankfully, there are a few strategies that might help make letting-down for a pump, rather than a baby, easier.

Don’t stress.

When you feel stress, it releases the hormone cortisol.  Cortisol can have an inhibiting effect on oxytocin, which is the hormone that signals to your brain to release milk or “let-down”.  Instead, take a couple of deep breaths and remind yourself to stay calm.

Remove the pressure.

There is a reason why you are pumping and, often, when you cannot remove the milk that you need for your baby, you immediately feel pressure to be able to pump effectively and stress usually follows right behind.  Instead, try to think through and identify what is causing you to feel pressure.  Are you preparing to go back to work?  Are you worried about pumping in a strange place?  Do you need more milk to leave with the babysitter?  Identifying the cause of the pressure will help you think through some other possible ways you might be able to solve any issues and, if you have several options, your feelings of pressure and stress will more than likely decrease, which increases your chances of removing more milk for your baby.

Try massage.

Breast massage has been shown to increase your oxytocin levels, which might aid in the release of milk for a let-down.  You can massage your breasts prior to pumping itself as well as massage your breasts during pumping using your fingers to hold the flanges and your thumbs to do the massage.  Additionally, massage has also been shown to increase the total yield of milk released from the breast.

Use your senses.

What causes you to let-down for your baby?  That sweet smell?  Precious smile?  Adorable coo?  Use that to your advantage!  Have a shirt close by with the scent of your baby, keep a sweet picture at your pumping station, or watch of video of your baby doing that irresistible coo.  Also, consider using essential oils.  What do you think smells good?  Many mothers find they respond with a sense of relaxation and calm when smelling lavender oil.  Put a few drops of your favorite relaxing oil nearby, close your eyes and take a deep calming breath.

Check the size of the breastshield flanges & your suction.

Just like Goldilocks, you want your flanges to be not too big, not too small, but just right!  Your nipple should have the freedom to move freely inside the shaft of the flange.  If your nipple rubs along the inside, damage could occur as well as constriction of the ducts through which the milk flows.  If its too big and a large portion of the breast is pulled inside the shaft, you may also not be able to release the milk from within the breast. 

Instead, you want the flange to rest at the base of the nipple with the nipple having the freedom to move inside the shaft.  Additionally, you want the suction to be just right—for you!  The suction should be high enough to be effective, but it should not hurt.  If it hurts due to the strength of power, turn it down until you feel comfortable.

Use your baby.

If you know you will need to use your pump sometime in the future, use your baby now to help condition yourself to be able to let-down for the pump.  While your baby is latched onto one breast, pump the other one!  You do not necessarily have to pump for the whole feed, but at least through the let-down and a few minutes after.  Repeat the exercise until you feel just as
comfortable with the pump as you do with your baby.

Give it time.

Research has shown that it can take up to 1 minute for a baby to elicit a mother’s let down and up to 2 minutes for a pump to illicit the same let down response.  It may not seem like a big difference when you read that last sentence, but when you are waiting for it, it can feel like forever!  Be reassured that in order to achieve the same results, you may have slightly different experiences eliciting a let-down response between your baby and the pump—and that is normal!

Pumping effectively can take time, practice and skill.  Don’t be afraid to try new things!  You might be surprised at a new discovery.

Tell us—what has worked for you?  We’d love to read comments about your experience or any unique techniques you have tried!


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5 Comments
  1. Liz 2 years ago

    I facetime with my baby (husband) while pumping at work. It helps!

  2. Profile photo of Lauren Majors, IBCLC Author
    Lauren Majors, IBCLC 2 years ago

    Liz, that is a fantastic idea! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Deena 2 years ago

    I have been pumping for 5 months. My baby was on the NICU for 5 weeks. During that time I was able to beef up my stash to about 900 oz. I started back to work after 3 months and my supply has dropped to where I am only getting about 4 oz a day. I was getting 35oz a day. What do you suggest? We are on our last freezer bag and supplementing with formula.

  4. Profile photo of Sylvia
    Sylvia 2 years ago

    Deena, I posted your question in the forums. Please look there for answers!

  5. Becca 2 months ago

    Reading this article helped lol!

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